Tarry a Day Longer
For me as a child Sh’mini Atzeret was without question the least memorable among the Jewish holidays of the fall season. Sandwiched between the high drama of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the pageantry of Sukkot on one hand and the revelry of Simhat Torah on the other, Sh’mini Atzeret often seemed more like a way station than a destination. It had only two distinguishing characteristics. The first, the prayer for rain, seemed to me supremely irrelevant and even perverse; I wasn’t a farmer and I liked spending time outdoors, so what was the upside to rain? The second, Yizkor, was depressing; in any case in the synagogue of my youth those lucky enough to have parents who were alive and well repaired to the lobby to schmooze while the sad and serious business of Yizkor took place behind closed doors.
What changed my attitude was a midrashic comment cited by Rashi in his Torah commentary. Commenting on the designation of this holiday as “atzeret” the rabbis understood it in the sense of stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.'”
There is a breathtaking beauty and profundity in this midrash. We spend all of the High Holidays and Sukkot reaching out to God, asking for forgiveness, for redemption, for life itself. But is God listening? Yes, say the rabbis, and Sh’mini Atzeret is a concrete expression of God’s response. I know that you are near me now, says God, and I wish that it could always be so. Do not think that when you feel far from me that only you feel alone; so do I. Let us be as close to each other now and for as long and as often as is possible.
For me this Midrash suggests that the relative calm and simplicity of Sh’mini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the solemnity and celebration of the surrounding holidays. God is not to be found only in the peak moments of petition and celebration. These can serve only as catalysts for intimacy with the divine in daily life, not as substitutes for that closeness. Sh’mini Atzeret reminds me that God seeks my presence as I seek God’s and that the opportunity for that encounter exists every day of the year, with or without a shofar, sukkah, or seder.
These thoughts lead me to one further reflection, a troubling one. By the time Simhat Torah rolls around many of us, myself included, profess to be sick of the holidays, eagerly looking forward to life returning to normal. Enough synagogue, enough praying, enough singing, enough eating; daily life may be difficult, but this is exhausting. Resentment, sometimes expressed as cynicism, often descends over the congregation as we celebrate Simhat Torah; perhaps the parodies of prayer that are often performed are a means of channeling some of that frustration.
When I hear others, or myself, expressing this sentiment I feel a profound sadness. Beginning with the advent of the month of Elul and ending with Sh’mini Atzeret we recite daily Psalm 27 in which we say the following: “One thing I ask of Adonai, this alone I request; to live in Adonai’s house all the days of my life, to gaze upon Adonai’s beauty and to frequent his sanctuary.” More than anything else, the power of my belief in God is the consequent sense of connection — to God and to God’s creations. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, and alienation disappear in the aura of God’s presence. Just as important, I am able to turn to my fellow human beings not in fear and suspicion but in love and fellowship. Should I not then crave every moment of closeness that the holidays provide? Why is it that once I am afforded the opportunity that I requested, frequenting God’s sanctuary, it becomes a burden rather than a gift?
For an answer I turn to Isaiah 58, the Haftarah that is read on the morning of Yom Kippur. Isaiah records the complaints of those who have observed the fast day in all of its detail and yet feel that God has not heeded them. Isaiah’s reply to them is both acerbic and majestic:
Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your vindicator shall march before you, the presence of Adonai shall be your rear guard.
Then when you call Adonai will answer when you cry he will say: Here I am.
What is it, I ask myself, that those addressed by Isaiah do not understand? My answer is that their relationship to the ritual of worship is purely external and superficial. They believe that the performance of the required rites can win them God’s favor. They fail to see that the discipline of religious rites and observances is for their sake, not for God’s. It is a discipline meant to remind them of a power greater than themselves, a power that is the source of their own ability to think and act. Ritual is meant to be a conduit to humility, which is simply the ability to see clearly one’s place in God’s world. That vision should lead us to see our fellow human beings as partners in doing God’s work and the rituals of religion as opportunities to practice mastering our appetites and channeling them constructively as well as occasions for acknowledging the blessings that God has given us.
At times I am one of those complainers whom Isaiah reproved. I see the intense period of the fall holidays as a necessary evil that I need to shoulder to satisfy the whims of a demanding God. I forget that these days are windows of opportunity that allow me to spend time in God’s presence and to evaluate the rest of my life from that perspective. Most important, I forget that these holidays are a product of God’s love for us, God’s desire to be near us.
The time of dwelling in God’s house is drawing to a close. We can use the little time that remains to reflect on the blessing of being in God’s presence or we can strain at the bit, looking longingly toward this coming Monday and the return to routine that it promises. Let us hear God’s voice as embodied in Sh’mini Atzeret, the voice that asks us to tarry a day, an hour, a moment longer. Let us turn to God as God, on this humble holiday, turns to us.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.