Today is Shemini Atzeret, which means something like "the 8th day of pausing" or "the pause of the 8th day." Eighth day refers to the seven-day festival of Sukkot, which has just ended. Shemini Atzeret is a kind of lagniappe, a bonus, an extra. Shemini Atzeret is the moment when, after a week of hanging out together, God says "wait, no, you don't have to go yet, do you? Stay for a snack! One more cup of tea!"
(In Israel and in the Reform world, today is also Simchat Torah, the day of "rejoicing in the Torah," when we read the very end of the Torah and then immediately cycle back around to the very beginning. Our central narrative is a kind of mobius strip, a continual spiral, which shifts in meaning each year as we change and grow. More on that later today, I hope.)
So, Shemini Atzeret: what's the deal? What does it mean for a seven-day holiday to have an eighth day? (Isn't that kind of an oxymoron?) During the middot class I took this summer, Reb Elliot taught some beautiful texts about atzeret. One of them is this set of teachings from the Slonimer rebbe, found in Netivot Shalom (I paraphrase):
There are two days of atzeret during the year. The word's root means "stop," so these are days of holy pausing. The Holy One of Blessing says to those who engage with God, heyyu atsurim iti, "be those who put on the brakes and slow down with Me." This is our time to be with the Beloved at the end of an intense cycle of spiritual work.
Just as Shavuot (the moment of revelation at Sinai) comes after the 49 days of Counting the Omer, so does Shemini Atzeret come after the 49 days of Elul + these weeks of Tishri. Each of these days is a kind of atzeret, a pause, a day of extra connection with God at the end of a long journey.
On Shemini Atzeret, as we dismantle our sukkot, we realize that the whole world is a sukkah. We may be moving back indoors to our solid, well-constructed houses, but that shouldn't mean losing access to Sukkot's insights about fragility, openness, and permeability.
It is taught that the smooth parchment between the letters (of Torah) is holier than the letters; for each letter has its own holiness, but the parchment contains the holiness of all the letters. Just so, Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret, the culmination of the two holiest periods in the year, are the smooth parchment which contains all the holiness of the days we've just completed.
I love the idea that after seven-times-seven-weeks of spiritual work, what God wants most is for us to linger just a little longer... and I'm unsettled and ultimately inspired by the notion that however holy our words may be (and Jewish tradition loves words, no doubt about that!), the silence -- the ineffability -- the pause in time -- the blank parchment that contains them is even holier.
P.S. Here's a shiny little gematria: סוכה / sukkah has the numerical value of 91; יהוה / YHVH has a value of 26 and אדני / Adonai has a value of 65. 65 + 26 = 91, so dwelling in the sukkah means dwelling in the integration of those two divine Names, the Name that connotes immanence and indwelling-in-the-world and the Name that connotes ultimate transcendence. Now that the festival of Sukkot is over, it's our job to integrate those two aspects of God in our ordinary lives.