It was visiting day at my sleep away camp. I might have been 9 or 10. As the day started coming to a close, I walked my parents down the long field to their car. It was big red 4-door Buick, with manual roll-down windows and a front seat that went straight across so you could have someone sit in the middle. The hood of the car was like boat deck. It was the early 1980s.
I was crying. My parents hugged me goodbye and started to get into the car. I begged them not to leave me at camp. They pooh-poohed my tears and told me I’d be fine.
But I didn’t want to stay at camp.
So I threw myself onto the hood of the car and cried:
If you loved me, you wouldn’t leave me.
Yes, I had a flair for the dramatic.
This story felt relevant to today’s holiday of Shemini Atzeret.
Shemini Atzeret is also known as the 8th day of Sukkot, which might sound non-consequential until you realized that Sukkot is a 7-day holiday.
So what exactly is this holiday?
My Rabbi, Chaim Steinmetz, pointed out that Sukkot — the Feast of the Tabernacles — marks the end of three different cycles:
- it is the end of the agricultural cycle that begins with Tu B’Shvat, which is the New Year for trees. Sukkot is the final harvest of the year.
- it is the end of the cycle of pilgrimage festivals that begins with Passover, which occurs in the actual first month of the Hebrew calendar
- it is the end of the “Tishrei” holidays — the spiritual Jewish New Year that began with Rosh Hashana. Tishrei is the 7th month of the Hebrew calendar — the month of rest.
That’s a lot of endings. It’s natural to feel a sense of loss as cycles come to completion.
Longing to Stay
The ancient sage Rashi explained Shemini Atzeret using the metaphor of a king who invites his children to a banquet for a certain number of days and then begs them to stay just one more day.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained it as the private reception after a formal state dinner — kind of like a VIP after party.
We are lingering at the party.
After 21 days of spiritual renewal and reconnection that began on Rosh Hashana, Shemini Atzeret is the spiritual version of throwing ourselves on the hood of the big red Buick and proclaiming our love and desire to stay with God. Or it could be God’s desire to stay with us. Or both.
Or perhaps it is an example of the challenge many of us have in navigating transitions.
Good byes can be hard. Endings are difficult, even when what’s ending feels like a disruption. If you’ve felt anxiety about going back to work in an office, you probably know what this feels like.
A New Beginning
Rabbi Steinmetz offered another meaning of Shemini Atzeret. He explained that Shemini Atzeret is like Rosh Hashana — a day of introspection and reflection. Except that instead of looking prospectively toward the year ahead, we look back at the year that was.
Specifically, we reflect on gratitude for what we have harvested.
What are we harvesting: materially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually?
Going in Circles
This understanding of Shemini Atzeret reminds us that life isn’t linear; it’s cyclical.
Every ending is also a beginning. In fact, throughout the 7 days of Sukkot, one of the rituals is to walk in circles around the the central platform of the synagogue with the fruits of nature.
And on Simchat Torah, the final coda of this stretch of holidays, the cyclical nature of life takes center stage. As we complete the cycle of reading the Torah, we immediately start again. And we celebrate by dancing in circles.
Every ending is also a beginning.
When the cycle ends, we start again. Not from scratch, but with the benefit of all that we’ve harvested from the previous cycle.
Remember this the next time you find yourself “going in circles.”
Bonus: An Astrology Connection
This description of Shemini Atzeret as a return to the spirit of Rosh Hashana struck me as particularly relevant this year because of how it aligns with the astrology of the moment.
Yesterday was the start of Mercury retrograde, a period of time when it appears (from the perspective of Earth) that Mercury is moving backwards. Astrologer Chani Nicholas explains that Mercury retrogrades are times for review and reflection.
A couple of weeks before Mercury stations retrograde, it’s in its pre-retrograde shadow. What comes up in this time will often be the fodder for our review.
For this cycle of Mercury retrograde, the pre-retrograde shadow started on Rosh Hashana, and Mercury stationed retrograde on Shemini Atzeret.
I didn’t make this up. I’m just reporting on what’s happening in the sky.
Life isn’t linear. Endings are beginnings. We look back to move forward.
We are always coming back around.
when you reach the end
don’t believe you have arrived
this is where you start