Thoughts on Shemini Atzeret 2023
The holiday coming up this Shabbat is called “Shemini Atzeret,” usually translated as “The Eighth Day of Assembly.” It is an odd holiday. Some people call it the eighth day of Sukkot, except that Sukkot is clearly, in the Bible, a seven-day holiday. The rabbis of the Talmud make sure to tell us that it is a “regel bifnei atzmo” – its own holiday, meaning not Sukkot. We are not exactly sure what “Atzeret” means in this context. The word root means “cease” or “stop” but we can all count to seven.
The oddness is sharpened when we know that the holiday commemorates nothing, nor is there any special ritual on this holiday. I’ve often said that the holiday marks a supreme act of restraint on the part of the Talmudic Rabbis. The ancient rabbis habitually like to fill in any gaps in the texts and traditions with their own interpretations. Not this holiday. It seems to have a sign on it that says, “Do not connect any events or assign any rituals to this holiday. Leave it alone. This means you, Rabbi.”
The teaching I give, a teaching that has stood the test of time, is that this is the holiday of every individual person. This “stopping day” comes at the end of a period in the Jewish calendar abundant in depth and reach. However this holiday came to be, I think the rabbinic restraint in giving it a meaning leaves it to each of us to assign a meaning, our own.
It is your holiday. This means you.
Whether you have been tracking the meanings laid out by the Jewish tradition for these last several weeks or not, you have unarticulated teachings in your soul. If you live a conscious and reflective life, you have had your journey out of Egypt. You have had the Divine word set up for you by an angel in the heart of the fire. You have had to cleanse and rededicate your inner sanctuary. You have gone through unimaginable perils and sudden reversals in your life. You’ve had to witness the collapse of your inner life. You’ve had to rebuild for yourself the moral and spiritual framework that will lead you to well-being. You’ve had to face yourself, squarely, relentlessly, seeking the truth of the matter. You’ve had to learn to fight with your past and to live in the present and experience light, love, grace, radiance and joy as an act of will. You’ve had to imagine a different future.
You are finally ready to meet someone, maybe among those closest to you, someone whom you have known for decades. Except you were not yet the you that you were to become, and maybe nor were they yet the persons they were to become. We have to re-introduce ourselves, introduce our new selves.
Perhaps you’ve met an image and likeness of yourself, a self that lives just over the horizon, who dropped in for a visit just recently, or made an appearance on the hill just yonder. You might have to suffer a death of ego for you to arrive at that broken hill.
Or none of what I have just written.
This Shabbat, the Shabbat that coincides with Shemini Atzeret, you are asked not to remember anything in particular, recite anything in particular, or think about anything in particular.
Here’s my advice if you want it. If some banal or convenient teaching meets you on the road, kill it. If some voice says to me, “Just live in the present moment,” I might say, “I have fairly weighty things in my past to think about.” If some voice says to me that I “just have to forgive” (whatever that means), I might tell that voice “You go forgive somebody,” (whatever that even means); “I have some working through to do.” This is my Shemini Atzeret.
This holiday has a nice existentialist flare to it: The Day of Being, and Nothingness.
I am going to start with just being, and think nothing, and Nothing. Then listen to my soul.
My soul has many things to teach me, teachings populated with a good number of witticisms and jokes. I will set sail on the inner sea, and for one day, see where the wind takes me upon these waters.
I can’t wait for Shemini Atzeret to start!