Susan Elkodsi — Shemini Atzeret 2015
There’s an age-old saying that time flies when you’re having fun, and it’s human nature to not want a good time to come to an end. We like to linger over a good meal, or spend more time in a beautiful setting or with people we care about, and we definitely love the invention of the three day weekend. I’d go as far as suggesting that the snooze button on the alarm clock falls into this category, especially if we’re in the middle of a great dream.
If it makes sense that we humans want to keep a good time going, it’s not a leap to imagine that God might feel the same way. In fact, I think Jewish tradition agrees, and that the holiday of Shemini Atzeret is a perfect example of this.
Imagine that you’re God, and you’re looking down at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, watching the priests perform the festival rituals and sacrifices, enjoying seeing Jews from all over the known world eating, worshipping and rejoicing together the way a grandparent might watch the kids playing after Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine wanting to freeze time, to enjoy the visit just a little longer, to soak up as much nachas as you can before everyone goes home.
The root of the word atzeret is ayin-tzadee-resh. The verb la-atzor can be translated as to gather, which is how it’s used in the Torah, but it can also be translated as to detain or delay. This means that we can read the verse from Leviticus commanding us to observe this festival, both as “on the 8th day you shall gather” and as “on the 8th day you shall delay.”
Of course, this dichotomy didn’t go unnoticed by our rabbis. In tractate Sukkot of the Babylonian Talmud the rabbis discuss this idea about delaying. The Torah commands a total of 70 sacrifices during the 7 days of Sukkot, but only one on Shemini Atzeret. According to Rabbi Eleazar, the 70 offerings correspond to the 70 nations of the world, and the single offering of the Eighth Day corresponds to Israel. He offers an analogy to a mortal king who invites hundreds to a week-long banquet, and on the last day asks a few beloved friends to stay a little longer.
In the Torah, he imagines, when the week of Sukkot ended and it came time for the assembled pilgrims to go home, God said to them, “Please, make me a small meal, so that I might enjoy your company.” Rashi explained this as God asking Israel (rather politely) not to desert the temple courts — to stop themselves from leaving and stay with God for a last, intimate, small meal. God doesn’t want the time spent with Israel to end, and so an extra day is added to the festival of Sukkot. I can imagine this as lingering over a last cup of coffee with one or two close friends after the rest of the dinner guests have left. The dishes will wait.
In today’s world a prescribed day of rest such as Shabbat or Sukkot or Shemini Atzeret is often seen as a burden. We find it hard to unplug our electronics and be out of touch, and we live in a society where we’re always trying to do more with less, and faster and better. On the high holidays we count the pages left in the machzor to get an idea of how much longer services will last, even on Yom Kippur when lunch isn’t waiting.
Shemini Atzeret serves as a bookend to the 7-day festival of Sukkot. It ends our High Holiday season and gives us a chance to ease back into our busy lives, to reconnect with God, with ourselves and with others. Shemini Atzeret says, “Hit the snooze button one more time.”
Since about the 10th century of the Common Era, the festival of Simchat Torah has been observed outside of the land of Israel on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, but after that, we have two months to go before our next holiday, Hanukkah. The warmth and the joy of the High Holiday season needs to last us until then. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German Orthodox rabbi, translated la-atzor as “to gather” or “to store up.” He was referring to a gathering or “storing up” of the sentiments of gratitude and devotion acquired throughout the entire high holiday season. In a sense, we’re collecting spiritual souvenirs, like stones and seashells from the beach that sit in a glass to remind us of our vacation.
I have mixed emotions as our High Holiday season draws to a close. On one hand, it will be nice to get back to a more normal routine. On the other hand, I’ll be getting back to a more normal routine. Just like the rain we’ll pray for shortly during Musaf, getting back to a more normal routine has its good parts and its not so good parts. I’m looking forward to delaying that routine just a bit, and enjoying each day as it comes. Zeh hayom asah ado-nai, nagila v’nismecha bo, “this is the day God has made, enjoy it.”
Moadim l’simcha, chag sameach.