Parshat Shemini Atzeret: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17; Numbers 29:35-30:1; I Kings 8:54-66
Shemini Atzeret is the end of the High Holiday season. It is perfect for 2020. It is a holiday about being attached yet separate at the same time. It is about finding joy during moments of uncertainty. It is an optimistic message of the possibility of hope and renewal, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.
The holiday isn’t mentioned in the main part of our Torah reading, only in the maftir from the second scroll we read, which is taken from Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers.
The maftir says, “On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations.” Leviticus 23: 34-36 says, “On the 15th day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. 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.”
A few verses later it says, “You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.”
Our sages noticed an ambiguity here. Shemini Atzeret seems to be the last day of Sukkot, but the Torah says that Sukkot is seven days. Fortunately, our sages looked at ambiguity as an opportunity to create deeper meaning.
They created an additional holiday on top of Shemini Atzeret, which they called Simchat Torah, which celebrates both the finishing of the annual Torah reading and its beginning again.
The holidays of the month of Tishri represent a cycle of spiritual rebirth and renewal. On Rosh Hashanah, we are created anew, with potential and possibilities to become the people we want to be. On Yom Kippur, through repentance and introspection, we think about how to transform our most difficult qualities and relationships.
Sukkot is about rebuilding our lives and thinking about the walls that we have around us. Which walls need to stay up, and which need to come down?
Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day. This has echoes of when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, which was the eighth day of creation. They felt insecure, heading into a new and unfamiliar world.
Shemini Atzeret, with Simchat Torah, celebrates our potential for creating meaning and goodness no matter what is happening in the world as long as we stay connected to the values of our traditions and to each other.
Aaron Bergman is a rabbi at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills.