What we refer to as the Sukkot holiday in general terms actually comprises two separate holidays: The first seven days are Sukkot when we eat in the Sukkah and shake the lulav on all days except Shabbat. Following Sukkot comes the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which, outside of Israel lasts two days. (In Israel it is only a single day.) The Torah gave no specific mitzvot to perform on Shemini Atzeret. Conceptually, after spending the last few weeks so close to Hashem, starting with Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur, and now Sukkot, Hashem says to us: “Let’s spend just one more day together (in the diaspora 2 days) before we part for the long stretch until the next festival, Pesach.” This extra day of celebration with Hashem symbolizes the special relationship that we, the Jewish people, have with Hashem. It is thus, that on this very day, we celebrate Simchat Torah, the greatest manifestation of Hashem’s love to us.
Moshe Rabbeinu instituted that a portion of the Torah be read every Shabbat. He divided the Torah up into 54 portions, so that one portion could be read on each Shabbat including a leap year, which has 13 months. This practice of reading one portion every Shabbat, has been going on since Moshe instituted it many years ago, and the weekly portion has been the topic of many a sermon and dvar Torah for thousands of years.
Simchat Torah marks the completion of the cycle of reading all 54 portions, from the beginning of the Torah to its end. On Simchat Torah itself, we read the Torah’s final portion, וזאת הברכה – Vezot Haberacha – and immediately begin the new cycle by reading the beginning of the first portion in the Torah, בראשית – Bereshit.
The first Shabbat after Sukkot is called “שבת בראשית “ Shabbat Bereishit, for it marks the new cycle’s beginning .
There is an interesting law regarding the reading of the Torah in Shul. There needs to be at least three people standing at the bima (the table on which the Torah is read) during the reading, namely, the reader, the gabbai (the one who calls the people up to the Torah), and the person receiving the Aliyah. These three represent the three participants present at the giving of the Torah on Sinai. First was Hashem, the Giver of the Torah, who is represented by the reader. Then there was Moshe, who conveyed the Torah to the Jewish nation, who is represented by the gabbai. The Jewish People, the receivers, comprised the third participant, who are represented by the one called up for the Aliyah. Our Sages derive from this that the weekly Shabbat Torah reading in Shul is really a mini Torah giving, and it is as if Hashem is giving us this portion right now–straight from Sinai.
This latter idea fits quite well with the Torah’s concluding blessing in which one says, “נותן התורה “- The One who gives the Torah -in the present tense. Hashem’s voice that gave the Torah on Sinai has never ceased speaking the Torah to the Jewish Nation, and therefore the Torah is being continuously given anew. We reenact this every week as we read the weekly portion. This is why the weekly portion is so relevant to events happening in the world at large and in our personal lives. The portion of the Torah being given this week is Hashem’s message to us right now.
This is the significance of Shabbat Bereshit, a new beginning of the Torah, which comes at the apex of a spiritual progression that began with Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment, we stood picture perfect as we accepted Hashem as our King. We continued our climb when we tried even harder to stay in line during the Ten Days of Repentance. We reached even higher when we acted like angels on Yom Kippur and exited like newborn-babies, completely free of sin. From there, we lived in the Sukkah for seven days, learning the lesson that this world is just a sukkah, and that we are here only temporarily, to earn our place in the world to come. Finally, Simchat Torah arrives when we rejoice with the Torah, Hashem’s prescription for us to earn our place in the world to come.
From this new spiritual standpoint, we now stand ready to begin, from the beginning, the new year with a renewed commitment to the Torah
As we listen to the Torah’s first verses, we hear the Torah describe how Hashem created the world in six days. There are countless examples of Hashem’s brilliance and ingenuity in every creation and creature on the planet. The staggering array of plants, vegetables, fruits, insects, fish, and animals, boggles the mind. Just trying to contemplate the sheer size of our universe, billions of light years large, is impossible.
What is all this for? Why did Hashem go to the trouble, so to speak, of making such a beautiful, magnificent, and sophisticated world?
The answer is: for you! Yes, just for you!
This is what our Sages teach us in the Mishna.
משנה מסכת סנהדרין פרק ד
לְפִיכָךְ כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד חַיָּב לוֹמַר, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם.
Every person is obligated to say, “the world was created just for me.”
Just as everything in the world was created and ready for Adam, one person, when he was brought into the world, so, too, Hashem would have done the same for each of us.
I recently met a man who told me that he had a collection of over 150 watches. Each one was different and special to him, and he wouldn’t want to sell any of them.
Hashem has a collection of billions of people, each of whom is precious to Him. No one is extra. Each person has a special place in Hashem’s world, with a mission that only he can fulfill.
So now the question we must answer is what does Hashem need this collection of people for?
Harav Moshe Chaim Luzzato in his work Derech Hashem, The Way of Hashem, writes:
ספר דרך ה’ – חלק א פרק א – בבורא ית”ש מציאותו
א. כל איש מישראל צריך שיאמין וידע, שיש שם מצוי ראשון קדמון ונצחי, והוא שהמציא וממציא כל מה שנמצא במציאות, והוא האלוק ב”ה:
- Every Jewish person must believe and know that there is a first cause that always existed and is eternal. And it is He who has brought forth and sustains all that exists in the world. This is Hashem.
We tend to think that before Hashem brought this world into existence, there was nothing but endless time and endless space. Into that vast emptiness of time and space Hashem created earth and all the other galaxies, stars, and planets that make up our universe. The reality, though, is much different. Before creation, there was nothing but Hashem; there was no time and no space. To create our universe, Hashem had to, so to speak, hollow out a space in Himself to create a universe with time and space. These are creations of Hashem, Who is outside of them; they do not bind or restrict Him.
Our prayers occasionally refer to Hashem as “המקום” – The Place. For example, the verse said to mourners upon leaving them is: המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבילי ציון וירושלים – May The Place comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
What kind of name for Hashem is “The Place?” Our Sages explain that Hashem is the place in which the world resides, not the opposite. Hashem is not contained within the world, rather Hashem is literally “the place” for the entire universe. This reflects the concept, expressed earlier, that Hashem was all that there was until He made room for a world in which He would create time and space. According to many commentaries, this is what was created with the very first word of the Torah, בראשית- At the beginning – a beginning. Prior to this pronouncement, there was neither time nor space.
Rabbi Luzzato continues:
ב. עוד צריך שידע, שהמצוי הזה ית”ש, אין אמתת מציאותו מושגת לזולתו כלל, ורק זה נודע בו, שהוא מצוי שלם בכל מיני שלימות, ולא נמצא בו חסרון כלל.
- One must also know that the true essence of this Entity is incomprehensible by anyone other than Himself. The one thing that we can know about Him is that He is perfect in every possible way and has absolutely no flaws whatsoever.
Our Sages also say that Hashem is good and only good. Hence, Man’s and this world’s creation could only be the outgrowth of Hashem’s goodness.
This is what King David expressed in the verse in Psalm 89,
ספר תהילים פרק פט
(ג) כִּי אָמַרְתִּי עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה
3) For I have said, the world is built on lovingkindness
Hashem created this world so that He could bestow love and kindness upon His creations. What is the greatest good that Hashem could possibly bestow upon a person? Since Hashem and only Hashem is the quintessence of all goodness, the greatest possible good that Hashem could possibly grant a person is a connection to Hashem Himself, the ultimate goodness. The place where this can happen is in the world to come when a person’s soul is in its spiritual state.
So what’s this world for? Why didn’t Hashem just create our souls, and put them directly into that world to enjoy His ultimate goodness?
The answer is that Hashem wanted that the good He would give us be a perfect good. And having created the soul for the human being out of a spark of Himself, so to speak, Hashem knew that the soul would be very unhappy receiving eternal goodness without having done anything to deserve it. We are naturally embarrassed to receive gifts that we don’t deserve. Imagine being given the golfer of the year award and feted at a dinner with 500 in attendance when you have never played the game. This feeling of unworthiness would be as eternal as the pleasure, and it would completely ruin it.
That is why Hashem created man in His image, which refers to the freedom that man has to choose between right and wrong. Hashem then told us very clearly in His Torah what is right and what is wrong, and that He expects us to choose to do right and not wrong. But we retain the freedom to do as we choose; Hashem doesn’t involve Himself in our decisions. Each correct decision that we make earns us reward in the world to come, since we alone made the choice to listen to Hashem instead of to our own urges and desires. So when we receive the amazing pleasure in the world to come, it will be very sweet having come as the reward for the hard work we did in this world.
There is another level of depth. A Mitzvah is a spiritual deed, and spiritually affects our soul in a positive way. With each mitzvah we do, our soul expands spiritually. The more spiritual our soul is, the greater a spiritual connection it can have with Hashem in the world to come.
This is why Hashem has this amazing collection of human beings. He has created them to share His amazing goodness with them. The place we will experience this most sublime pleasure is in the next world, but for the pleasure to be perfect, we must first earn it here, in this world.
To give us a small glimpse of how great that pleasure is, our Sages have given us a few things to think about.
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ד
וְיָפָה שָׁעָה אַחַת שֶׁל קוֹרַת רוּחַ בָּעוֹלָם הַבָּא, מִכָּל חַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה:
A moment of pleasure in the world to come is greater than all the combined pleasures of this world.
Can you imagine?! All of this world’s pleasures includes all the combined pleasure ever experienced by any person from Adam until today. And just a moment in the world to come exceeds that all!
The Alter from Kelem (Rabbi Simcha Zisel Ziv) observed,
“It would be worth it for a person to come to this world, suffer all of Job’s terrible suffering for seventy years, answer “amen” one time, and die. The unimaginable reward for saying that one “amen” would have made all the suffering worth it.
This is something to contemplate as we begin the new year and its cycle of Torah readings starting from the beginning of creation. Hashem created this whole magnificent world just for me so I could earn that amazing reward in the world to come. I am so privileged to know Hashem and what He created me for. And how fortunate am I that so many incredible opportunities await me in this coming year.