By Elie Mischel
After seven glorious days of the Sukkot festival, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, the party is still not over! Today, the eighth day, is Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, when the people of Israel yet again celebrate together in great joy:
“Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Hashem. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Hashem; it is a day of assembly: you shall not work at your occupations.” (Leviticus 23:36)
According to tradition, today brings us even greater joy than the joy we experienced over the past week during the Feast of Tabernacles. But interestingly, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the people celebrated in a very strange way.
When the Temple stood, the Levite choir would sing a unique song for each and every holiday. The special song for today, the joyous day of Shemini Atzeret, was Psalm 6 – a highly unusual choice. You see, Psalm 6 is not a particularly “happy” chapter of Psalms. Just reading the first few verses should make that clear enough!
“For the Leader; with string-music; on the Eighth Day: A Psalm of David, Hashem, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury. Have mercy on me, Hashem, for I languish; heal me, Hashem, for my bones shake with terror. My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, Hashem—O, how long!” (Psalms 6:1-4)
Why do we read this painful psalm on one of the happiest days of the year?
The reason we read this psalm on Shemini Atzeret is rooted in the difference between the joy of Sukkot and the joy of Shemini Atzeret. During the seven days of Sukkot, we celebrate in joy because God is so kind to us and provides the crops and bounty we need to not only survive but to thrive:
“You shall hold a festival for Hashem your God seven days, in the place that Hashem will choose; because Hashem your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:15)
During Sukkot, we are joyous because God has given us so much good and plenty. It is a time to appreciate the many blessings and reasons for joy that God has given us! But when describing the joy of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the Bible does not offer any reason for being joyous – none at all!
On Shemini Atzeret, our joy is altogether different. It is not a joy of “reasons.” We are simply happy to be in God’s presence! We are happy to be together with our Father in Heaven; we don’t need any other reason to be joyous! This, a joy that is not dependent on reasons, is the greatest joy of all!
This is why the Levites sang the painful sixth psalm on Shemini Atzeret. King David, the author of this psalm, was so close to God that he was able to sing even during his darkest and most painful moments. Even in his darkest hour, as he wrote the painful words of Psalm 6, even as his couch melted with tears – even then, he sang in joy!
Today, we are so close to God that we do not require any reasons to be happy. Today, we remember that even during the most painful moments of life, we are never alone. For God is always there with us, through everything. And that is all we truly need to be happy.