Shemini Atzeret has various customs, including reciting the memorial prayers of Yizkor. And the tradition offers beautiful supplicatory prayers to recite on this day which ask God for rain. (I wrote a contemporary one several years ago, in the form of a ghazal.) But my favorite teaching about today is that today is a day for sitting still.
The Hasidic rabbi known as the Slonimer Rebbe teaches that there are two days called atzeret, "pausing," during the year. On each of these days, God asks us to be people who choose to pause, to linger in the divine presence.
One of these days is Shavuot. Shavuot is called an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, and comes as the 50th day after the 49-day journey of Counting the Omer. And Shemini Atzeret is called an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, and it's also a 50th day; it comes after 7 weeks of the intense spiritual work of the high holiday season. Seven weeks ago was Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of teshuvah which prepares us for the Days of Awe. Count 49 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul, and the 50th day is today -- Shemini Atzeret.
The Slonimer concludes by saying that the white parchment of the Torah, which contains all of the letters, is holier than the words because it contains all of them within its field. Just so, he says, these days of pausing contain all of the holiness of the holy seasons each one comes to complete.
(I've shared this teaching here before, but I can't resist sharing it again -- I find it so beautiful.)
Today is a day to sit still and reflect on the journey we've just undergone. Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new moon of the month of Elul, fell on August 26 and 27 this year. What has your life contained since then? What was Elul like for you? Did you read (or write) #blogElul posts? Did you spend time thinking about your relationships and what might need healing or re-alignment?
What were the High Holidays like for you this year? Did you hear the shofar at Rosh Hashanah? How were the aseret y'mei teshuvah, ten days of re/turning? Remember Yom Kippur? Did you hear Kol Nidre? Did you pray in community, or did you pray alone? Did the experience move you? Did you come away feeling changed?
What was Sukkot like for you this year? Did you sit in a sukkah? Did you welcome supernal guests? Did you experience the great outdoors? Did you contemplate fragility, impermanence, what fades and what lasts?
Over the last seven weeks maybe you've been joyful. Maybe you've experienced sadness. Maybe you've felt hopeful. Maybe you've felt grief. Maybe all of the above. Sit for a minute and remember. That's today's work: remembering and integrating everything we've experienced over the weeks since late August, since the month of Elul began.
I love the rituals and liturgies, the words and customs, the melodies and practices of these seven weeks. And I love this teaching from the Slonimer which reminds me to cherish the pausing as much as I cherish the doing. Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that a chant isn't complete until we also sit with the silence which resounds when the audible singing is through. "When the sound of a chant has ended," she writes, "the most subtle, transformative and powerful part of the practice can begin." Today is the silence after the chant. Listen to your heart in the silence. Feel whatever arises.
The pause of Shemini Atzeret is the chatimah, the seal, on everything we've experienced in the last seven weeks. The spaciousness which puts all of the holidays' busy-ness into a different perspective, the white space in which holy words are tenderly cradled, the silence after our seven weeks of song.