Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What is Shemini Atzeret Anyway?

Shemini Atzeret is a curiosity. It’s the one festival for which we have no rituals, images, or narrative. It just is – but what is it?

The “Eighth Day Assembly” comes at the tail end of Sukkot, wrapping up the harvest festival. To understand its possible meaning, let’s take a look at the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (so-called because in ancient times, Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate them together). They are Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Taken together, they tell the story of our ancestors:
  • We were slaves in Egypt but God redeemed us and brought us out of bondage and into freedom (Pesach).
  • As free people and as a newly-formed nation, we arrived at Mt. Sinai where we entered into an eternal Covenant with God who revealed to us Torah, the text of our binding contract with God and our nation’s constitution (Shavuot).
  • We wandered through the wilderness for the next 40 years because the generation born into slavery in Egypt lacked the vision and courage to enter Eretz Yisrael and face the risks and challenges of living as an independent nation (Sukkot).
Each year we relive and rehearse that early history through our festival celebrations: redemption, revelation, wandering. But something is missing! In this cycle we never arrive in Eretz Yisrael, settle the Land, and build our nation on holy soil and sand. We come to the border, again and again, but always remain outside.

Perhaps this is because the notion of settling the Land and building a nation there is not just a matter of history; as a religious ideal it has never been entirely met. Our image of the messianic age involves ingathering and resettlement, restoration of the nation and resurrection of the throne of David. It is the missing chapter in the cycle writ large.

Perhaps Shemini Atzeret is that last chapter, a subtle, quiet, stealth festival. The number eight is significant. Seven is the cosmic number of creation. Eight is the number of creation realized, perfected. Hence circumcision is on the eighth day: it perfects the created child. The “Eighth Day Assembly” needs no rituals, images, or narratives because it is mysterious and, as yet, closed off to us. It is for us to imagine and envision what the messianic age will be like to inspire ourselves to act in the world so as to bring it ever nearer.

On the day following Shemini Atzeret, we celebrate Simchat Torah and rejoice fully and whole-heartedly in Torah – in Torah wisdom, Torah learning, Torah that builds community, Torah that enriches and inspires and consoles us, Torah that make us the People Israel, Torah that helps us be our best selves. Simchat Torah is precisely what the world will be like the day after the Messiah arrives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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