This Shabbat we celebrate the festival of Shemini Atzeret. This festival has
always puzzled me. My confusion I believe is in part because in a Reform
context where only one day of each festival is celebrated (following the practice
in Israel), Shemini Atzeret and the following festival Simchat Torah, are
celebrated together. As a result Shemini Atzeret tends to be subsumed into
Simchat Torah and we don’t really pay much attention to it. But it turns out, I
am not alone in my confusion about this festival. The rabbis of the tradition
were also challenged even by the meaning of the word “Atzeret” in this context.
The Torah tells us that following the seven-day festival of sukkot, there will be
Shemini Atzeret, an eighth “atzeret” Some translate it as a “stopping,” an eighth
day of “cessation,” perhaps from work, perhaps from the multitude of sacrifices
offered during the days of sukkot. Its meaning is unclear. Others have translated
“atzeret” as “gathering,” so an eighth day of gathering. The Torah tells us it is a
day of solemn gathering and no work is to be done, so either translation reflects
the nature of the day.
Rashi offers a beautiful explanation of Shemini Atzeret which helped me to a
new and special understanding of the festival. He says that Sukkot, a pilgrimage
festival, gathered all the people together in Jerusalem. People came from far and
wide, they celebrated the festival of joy, and there are fabulous stories of the
parties and fun which was to be had, especially in the evenings, with music and
feats of daring and strength. I like to think of it as Jewish Coachella. A big
seven day party. But then comes the eighth day and it’s time to go home. But,
Rashi says, God was so enjoying being with everyone, that God wanted them to
stay one extra day, and so God called for Shemini Atzeret, an eighth day of
stopping, not moving, not leaving, stopping and staying, a day of being together.
All the hoshanot are over, the sacrifices, the prayers, the celebrations and
obligations, it is one extra day just to sit and be together. A bit like the morning
after the party when everyone gathers, recounts the stories, rests, relaxes and
just takes some time to breathe. Shemini Atzeret is our time to breathe, to be
and to remember.
I imagine us all sitting around the kitchen table with God, talking about the past
month: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, all the moments, the celebrations,
the challenges. And it is a time for Yizkor, for remembering. We think about the
people who should be with us, who should be sitting at the table, but whose
places are empty, and we bring them to sit with us once more through our
stories and our memories.
And this year, we will also read Ecclesiastes on Shabbat, a book of wisdom,
reminding us about what is really important: living each day to the fullest, not
pursuing and chasing after fame, wealth or accolades, but recognising what is
really important and what values we hold close to us.
Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day, a day to stop, to rest, reflect, remember and
be. May we all find peace this eighth day and comfort in our memories.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio