Tonight begins the final push of the Jewish holiday season: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
For modern Orthodox Jews who observe all the holidays, Shemini Atzeret is the last mile of the holiday marathon that began with Rosh Hashana.
By the time Shemini Atzeret arrives, everyone is ready to be done. The women are ready to be out of the kitchen. Everyone has had enough of heavy holiday meals. Going to synagogue feels tired. The allure of a normal routine beckons.
Shemini Atzeret is a holiday that doesn’t have a clear significance. But it must have a greater meaning than simply the last day of Sukkot. What is it here to teach us about life?
The Meaning of Shemini Atzeret
Here are two meanings for this holiday.
A Day of Rest at the End of the Festival
The word Shemini means eight, as in the eighth day of Sukkot. Atzeret means to stop — implying a prohbition of work. And that’s the simple explanation of it. Shemini Atzeret is a final day of rest in the festival of Sukkot.
A Day of Gathering
According to the 19th century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Atzeret also means “to gather” or “to store up.” In his teaching, this is the day to reap the harvest, not of the field, but of the spiritual connection that we cultivated throughout the 3-week holiday season that began with Rosh Hashana.
According to Chabad, on Shemini Azteret, we harvest and celebrate the joy that we created by reaching inwards, overcoming obstacles and reconnecting to our true nature.
Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, fifth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, stated:
The 48 hours of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah should be highly treasured. Every moment is an opportunity to draw bucket- and barrelfuls of material and spiritual treasures. And this is accomplished through dancing…
A Coda to the Movement of Spiritual Renewal
The Jewish new year holidays are a time of immense personal transformation. It starts with Rosh Hashana, when the sound of the shofar calls us to attention and asked us to reflect on who we are in our truth and whether we have been living our lives in alignment with that truth.
On Yom Kippur, we release the masks and weights that have prevented us from living in our truth, appealing to God’s divine compassion and requesting forgiveness for our sins — those acts we committed when we were separated from truth by fear.
Sukkot, a celebration of abundance, also reminds us of the temporal nature of life and that without our faith we are unprotected from the elements.
Rather than looking at Shemini Atzeret as the last mile in a long marathon, we can view it in this way, as a “coda” to the 3-week movement of ritual, release and renewal that begins the Jewish spiritual year. It is the day in which we harvest the spirituality that we have worked to cultivate over the past three weeks. This is the day for bringing it all together.
The spiritual harvest is what gives us the resources we need to find our center in the chaos of world events, to stay grounded amidst the hurricanes of change.
The Spiritual Harvest Requires Rest
The two views of Shemini Atzeret fit together. The marathon of the Jewish new year can feel just like the marathon of our daily lives: a lot of running around to prepare, the swirling, frenetic energy of activity and action.
Even in a period punctuated by rest days, in the month designated for rest, the marathon of holidays can feel anything but restful. For years, my father built a sukkah and my mother spent long days in the kitchen to cook for the holiday. By the time the holiday started, the exhaustion was too great to be in the spirit of the holiday.
You don’t have to be Jewish or observe the holidays to appreciate this challenge. This has become the norm in our daily lives. We run around all day, always planning, preparing, communicating, and doing. We tire ourselves out and then collapse into bed at night. But passing out from exhaustion isn’t true rest. It’s not constructive rest.
Shemini Azteret is an opportunity for constructive rest, or restorative rest. This is the type of rest that restores our spirits. It is only when we engage in this type of rest that we can reap the spiritual harvest, looking at who we have become and what we have learned.
When we don’t allow ourselves the time and space to reconnect with what’s true, we become separated by fear. This leads to divisiveness and animosity, misunderstanding and mistrust. We have seen this play out on the national stage over the past week.
Rather than view it as the final, hard mile of the long marathon of holidays, we can view Shemini Azteret as the day when we can sit back and truly enjoy — be in joy of — the final moments of this period of spiritual rebirth.