The eighth day of Sukkot is NOT Sukkot’s forgettable kid brother. In fact it’s a super-holiday, and it packs an explosive opportunity for intimacy and fulfillment!
Table for Five: Shemini Atzeret
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
A parable: there was a king of flesh and blood who said to his servants, “Prepare a great feast to last for several days.” When the feast concluded, he said to his beloved servant, “Prepare a small feast so that I can enjoy your company alone.” -Sukka 55b, B. Talmud
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty
We just crowned God as our king on Rosh HaShanah, and as Proverbs 14:28 states, “The glory of the king is in numerous people.” We delight in bringing majesty to God in our crowded synagogues and at our full holiday tables. But at the end of the day, those things are actually God’s gift to us, like a king who enjoys hosting guests in his palace for their benefit. What God actually wants most for Godself is just to be with us at a small feast.
For some, the small feast of these pandemic times has been a challenge. As for me, I don’t really miss the crowds. As an introvert, I am actually nourished by opportunities to be in quieter spaces.
Is God also an introvert? God is quintessentially alone and hidden. God’s quiet space was in the Holy of Holies in the interior of the Temple where only the High Priest could approach once a year on Yom Kippur. The Jews are God’s small, close circle of friends, and surely God is a good listener, attentive to our prayers. And according to Elijah’s prophecy (1 Kings 19:11-12) quoted in the high holiday liturgy, we in turn listen for God not in the wind or the earthquake, but in the still small voice.
We are all at the small feast this year. To borrow the words of Susan Cain, let’s participate in this “quiet revolution” and do the hard work to make this our gift to God.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Mashpia, writer, businessman
Sukkos in Jerusalem was a very festive time. Jews gathered, offered 70 sacrifices praying for the 70 nations. On the eighth day, Shemini Atzeres, only one bullock was offered representing the Jewish nation. G-d wants a small but intimate party with His children. Another Midrash adds: G-d wants this final party because “your separation is difficult for Me.”
Why your and not our separation? Because G-d is always with the Jew. It is the Jew who can turn his back on G-d. G-d remains concerned, whether or not we keep Him in our consciousness.
Alternatively, your separation means the separation of the Jews from each other! Like a parent, He loves them even more when the children get along with each other. G-d’s concern is whether they will maintain their closeness.
But how will this last hurrah, albeit a small, intimate one, do more than delay the inevitable separation?
When the outsiders are gone and all that remain are G-d and His nation, without even the pomp of the Sukkos holiday, “so that I can enjoy your company alone,” this reinforces the intrinsic, eternal soul-relationship of each Jew with G-d and all Jews with one another.
Shemini Atzeres is still the most exuberant Jewish event of the year (outside of Israel it expands into Simchas Torah), as we complete the annual Torah reading cycle. Distinctions are dropped. Seniors with children, Torah scholars with regular folk, dance with joy and ecstasy, with our most vital Divine gift, G-d’s Torah.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
After all the High Holiday observances and days of sukkah celebrations, the Midrash says ‘Wait, don’t run away so quickly. Hold back one more day. Spend another day with your Creator.’
Life’s moments pass so quickly. With all the details of making the holidays happen, before we know it, they are over and we wonder what we have missed. We need time to dwell in the experience and reflect on who we saw and what we did, and to try to find God and the godliness that was a part of it. So, Shmini Azeret comes as God’s invitation to share just one more day – without any rituals specific to the holiday – simply to savor the connection and to spend a few more moments in intimate contact with our Creator.
In this year where so much of our holidays and celebrations have been thwarted, we need this extra day of quiet and reflection to find the gratitude within – for friends and family, for the legacy gifts of those whose memory we recall through Yizkor’s memorial prayer, for community near and far, for the luxury of being able to reflect, and for the opportunity to bask in the Presence of the Holy One whose invitation we accept on his day. Perhaps from these few precious moments we can each emerge with a greater sense of self, of how we fit into the world, of relationship to God, of resilience and of hope. That is certainly worth one more day!
David Sacks, Torah Podcaster @livingwithgod.org
In the ancient world, people thought that the Jews were atheists. “Where are your idols,” they wondered? With none in sight they concluded that we believe in nothing.
Talk about missing the point!
Idol worshippers believe in many gods. They say god is in the sun, and in the mountains, and in the trees.
We say the whole world exists within G-d.
All of us know that to represent Hashem in the form of anything would distract from the fact that He is in all places, at all times, making all things.
The cycle of holidays takes us from Rosh Hashana where we have the shofar, to Yom Kippur where we have the fast and dress in white, to Succos where we have the succah and the lulav and esrog, to the holiday where everything culminates, Shemini Atzeret where we have…
Amazingly, no tangible mitzvah is associated with the holiday that everything builds to. This is by design. The holidays are meant to elevate us spiritually, and to expand our consciousness step by step until we understand that we can connect with Hashem directly, and to see Him everywhere and in everything — with no need of anything physical.
This is what the Talmud means when it says that Hashem wants to enjoy our company alone.
After all the holidays and inner work, Hashem wants us to understand that all that exists is Him. And when we know that, then the holidays aren’t ending, they’ve only just begun.
Nina Litvak, Writer, accidentaltalmudist.org
At the beginning of my journey to Jewish observance, I snickered at Shemini Atzeret. It doesn’t seem to have a purpose or a personality. It’s the Seinfeld of holidays – a holiday about nothing. It was the day on the Hebrew calendar I couldn’t pronounce and didn’t understand.
Now, I appreciate Shemini Atzeret. Yes, it’s a holiday about nothing… nothing except being a holiday, and what’s more special than that? It’s a gift from Hashem to His people, just because He loves us. The holiday season is winding down and soon we’ll be dismantling our sukkahs and wondering if a single etrog is enough to make jam. But before the after-holiday letdown, we get an extra bonus holiday, just to make sure we’ve wrung every last bit of joy out of the season. Rashi evokes a father drawing his children closer before they go away, saying to them, “Your departure is difficult for me. Delay it one more day.”
It’s nice to get a party invitation, but the after-party, now that’s a hot ticket. Shemini Atzeret is a VIP backstage pass to chill with Hashem in the green room. Imagine seeing your favorite band live from the front row. Now imagine hanging out with the band, talking over the show together, becoming friends. And before the night is over, the biggest rock star in the world gives you his cell phone number and tells you – begs you – to call anytime, just to talk. That’s the holy beauty of Shemini Atzeret.
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