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The Meaning of Shemini Atzeret in a Socially Distanced World
Every week, JTS publishes a weekly Torah commentary. I wrote this week’s commentary, about Shemini Atzeret, and I’m sharing it below, in the moments before candle lighting. If you’d like to see the original publication, or listen to it being read, you can click here.
Of all of the holidays in the month of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret is the most puzzling. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the new year for the world, Yom Kippur focuses on atonement and forgiveness, Sukkot is about joy and vulnerability. Even Simhat Torah, which is not mentioned in the Bible, has a clear purpose and clear rituals. But if asked to explain the purpose of Shemini Atzeret, beyond having the opportunity to pray for rain for the coming season, most people would be hard pressed to articulate what, exactly, this eighth day does for us, for God, or for the world.
This question is not a modern one. The Rabbis themselves offer various explanations for this mysterious holiday. Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in Leviticus 23:36, where the Torah says, “On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.” Rashi, commenting on this verse, explains that the word atzeret comes from the root atzer, which means “to hold back,” making this holiday the one of “holding back.” This “holding back” is not God’s remaining while we leave. Instead, God is asking us to remain in the holy space created by the month of Tishrei for an extra day, for one more moment. This is not because there are more things we have to do, but simply so we can be together, in God’s presence and with one another. Rashi, paraphrasing a gemara in BT Sukkah 55b, brings an analogy to understand the role of Shemini Atzeret:
It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!” (Rashi on Lev. 23:36)
The parable suggests that Shemini Atzeret is not primarily for us; rather, it is for God. We typically conceive of the month of Tishrei as being about ourselves. What are our goals for the coming year? How can we overcome our past failures, to ensure that we can do better in the future? What does it mean for us to confront the precariousness of our own existence and still experience deep happiness? When we spend time during this season considering our relationship with God, it’s often in terms of what God can do, or has done, for us. Shemini Atzeret offers something different. It’s about what we can do for God.
Certainly, after the many days of holidays and hours in shul, Shemini Atzeret can feel almost excessive. Do we really need an extra day just because God wants us to stay close? Aren’t we offered the opportunity to be close every day? Whether through daily prayer, learning Torah, or performing mitzvot, we can always be acting with our relationship with God in mind. At the same time, though, this idea is so beautiful. God doesn’t need us to be close so we can pound our chests or wave our lulavim. God doesn’t need us to be close at all. God wants us to be close. How extraordinary that God, who shouldn’t need people at all, wants to be in relationship with the Jewish people, just for the sake of intimacy.
This year, perhaps more than any other, the feeling of longing for each other’s company is deep, and yet that intimacy feels unattainable. Whereas I usually enter Shemini Atzeret exhausted from too much shul and too much deviation from routine, this year, I long to reenter that communal space, if only for one more day. As God longs for the Jewish people to remain in His company, if only for one more day, many of us long to be together, even though we know that for us to be safe, we must be apart. In that sense, Shemini Atzeret is the perfect holiday for this moment, for 2020, and for Tishrei 5781. Please, we say to each other. It is so hard for me to part from you. When we seek God, we do so without the expectation that we can see God. And so too now, when we seek each other, we have learned to trust that being in community can happen without being in physical proximity. May the day come soon when we can gather with each other, but until we can, Shemini Atzeret promises us that even when we are apart, we are still together.
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Finally, in addition to Torah, I also love to bake. This week, I made a cinnamon babka, which we look forward to eating over Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah to increase our joy. Chag sameach!