The silence after the chant

PauseToday is Shemini Atzeret, 'The Pause of the Eighth Day.' Sukkot is a seven-day holiday. Today is day eight.

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.

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The sweetness of honey; the gates, open

15345560796_e8d6443d17_nAs a child, I loved being able to drizzle my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey. I remember eating leftover challah toast with honey on the mornings right after the holiday. The golden honey pooling on the rich white bread always seemed deliciously decadent, especially in our Pritikin household. I knew that the honey was a kind of prayer -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." (That's what's behind the custom of dipping apples or challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah.)

But I thought that was a one-time thing. Honey on challah, honey on apples: we ate those on the holiday itself, and then maybe for a few days until the Rosh Hashanah challot were nothing but crumbs. I didn't learn until I was in my mid-thirties that there are customs of continuing to eat honey on one's challah, and praying for a year of sweetness, until Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret means "the pause of the eighth day." It's the 8th day of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when (tradition says) after we've lived seven days in our sukkot, God murmurs "this has been so sweet; don't go yet; linger just a little longer?" So we stick around and celebrate one more day of festival together. And though we read during the closing service of Yom Kippur that "the gates (of repentance) are closing," some hold that they remain open until we reach Shemini Atzeret. Hence the tradition of continuing to put honey on our challah all the way until then.

I love the feeling of urgency which comes during the last service of Yom Kippur. The day is almost over; the long day of fasting and prayer and song is almost gone; and what has it gained me? Have I gone deep enough into the liturgy and into my own heart and soul? Is it going to change me? I want to be compassionate and kind to everyone I meet, I want to be mindful -- but have I done the inner work I need to do? The gates are closing, the liturgy tells us. The day is passing. We pray the whole closing service with the doors of the aron kodesh, the holy ark which contains our Torah scrolls, open to remind us that the gates are open and the way to God is open. The sun goes and turns.  Let us enter Your gates!

I appreciate that urgency. (I think I need it. Every year when we reach Ne'ilah, that closing service, it lifts me to a place I couldn't have reached otherwise.) But I also appreciate the teaching that the gates remain open during this whole holiday season -- that we can still sweeten our bread with honey, an embodied prayer for a sweet year to come, until Sukkot is drawing to its close. Even after the dramatic end of Yom Kippur with its long and piercing tekiah gedolah, the gate of teshuvah (repentance / return) remains open to us.

When we make teshuvah, we sweeten the year to come. Not because we gain any control over what's ahead, but because we've created a shift in ourselves which will allow us to experience more sweetness. That's the message I hear in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we sing on the days of awe each year. Who will be contented, and who will be restless? Who will be healthy, and who will be sick? We can't know what the new year will hold. But when we practice teshuvah, tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (giving to others), we can ameliorate whatever is to come, because we create change in ourselves. We can't change what will be, but we can change how we experience whatever comes our way.

Of course, teshuvah doesn't happen only during this time of year. Teshuvah can be an every day journey, an every-week journey, an every-month journey. And I believe that God is always waiting with open arms, ready to welcome us with love, any time we turn away from our misdeeds and try to orient ourselves in the right direction again. Our liturgy teaches that "we are loved by unending love," and that's always true, not only during the holidays.

So what does it mean to say that the "gates" are open, or closing, or closed? Maybe the gates are our own. Maybe they are the gates of the season. Once we make it to the end of Sukkot, we will be spiritually worn-out from the intense emotions and intensive holiday journey of this time of year. We will need to close the door on this chapter and move into what's coming. We can't live all year in this state of heightened intensity. We are the ones who close the gates.

The gates which are now open are the gates of our hearts and souls. What do we want to draw forth from ourselves as we move through these gates? When the time comes for us to close the gates on this season, who do we want to have become?


Remembering our beloveds as we linger a little longer

YahrzeitShemini Atzeret: "the pause of the 8th day." The day after Sukkot, when the Holy Blessed One murmurs in our ear, "Don't go just yet. Don't leave this bower where we've spent this past week. Linger a little longer with Me."

Shemini Atzeret: the day when we shift, in our daily amidah, from blessing God Who brings the dew to blessing God Who brings the wind and the rain. (And in this climate zone, eventually, the ice and the snow.) On this day we recite a special prayer for rain.

Shemini Atzeret: another opportunity to say the prayers of Yizkor, the liturgy of remembrance which recite as we remember our beloved dead. Of course, many of us just said Yizkor. There was a Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, a scant twelve days ago. Why are we reciting Yizkor again so soon?

Well. Like anything else in Judaism, there is a multiplicity of answers. But here's an answer which speaks to me.

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Three more holidays at the very end of Sukkot

There are three distinct and special celebrations at the end of Sukkot. The first of them, Hoshana Rabbah, is today.

HoshanaRabba09_9Hoshana Rabbah -- "The Great 'Save-Us!'" -- is the seventh day of Sukkot and a minor holiday in its own right. On this day, traditionally, we make seven circuits of our sanctuaries with our lulavim and our Torah scrolls while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. Seven is a number with spiritual significance in Judaism: seven days of the week, the seven "lower" (accessible) sefirot (aspects of God), the seven ancestral figures (some invite seven men and seven women) welcomed into the Sukkah as ushpizin (holy guests) -- and now on the seventh day of this festival we circumnambulate our sanctuaries seven times, singing and praying. There's also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)

Even if you're not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. I like the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) And here's a brief excerpt from a translated hoshana, provided by Rabbi David Seidenberg of NeoHasid.org.

Shemini Atzeret -- "The Pausing of the Eighth Day" -- is the eighth day of Sukkot. Yes, Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but tradition tells us that on the eighth day, God (Who has been so enjoying spending time with us in our sukkot) says "awww, do you really have to go? Can't you linger a little longer?" So we stay in our sukkot for one more day, one more chance to engage in intimate connection with Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. This is a day for spaciousness, a day of pausing, a day to celebrate the white space which cradles and contains all of the texts and teachings and observances of the holiday season now ending. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are a dense and busy time, full of obligations and sermons and teachings; Shemini Atzeret is a chance to pause, to take a breath, to receive the blessings of stillness.

This day is a hinge-point in our liturgical year between the summer season and the winter season. On Shemini Atzeret, we recite special prayers for rain, and we enter into the liturgical winter-season when our Amidah contains a one-line prayer for rain every day instead of the summertime one-line prayer for dew. I've written a contemporary prayer for rain which can be read / davened on this day, which you can find in the VR archives here; you might also enjoy my Sestina for Shemini Atzeret, which I wrote last year and which I still really like. Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts through tomorrow (Monday).

Children-kiss-torahSimchat Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah" -- is the culmination of all of our celebrations during this holy season. We read the very end of the Torah scroll, then read the beginning again, celebrating the neverending nature of our collective story. We dance around the room with Torah scrolls singing songs. Here's the poem I wrote some years ago for this festival, Mobius, which is also available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.)

So when is Simchat Torah? Well, it depends on who you ask. In Israel, Sukkot lasts for seven days; the seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah; and the 8th day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Reform communities outside of the land of Israel also operate on this calendar. (I'm not sure about Reconstructionist communities; Jewish Renewal communities' practices vary.) In Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative Jews move from 7 days of Sukkot (the final one being Hoshana Rabbah) to two days of Shemini Atzeret, the second of which is Simchat Torah, making the whole shebang a 9-day observance insted of an 8-day one. (In my local community we'll celebrate Simchat Torah on Monday night, in conjunction with the local college Jewish student group.)

It's possible to experience a kind of holiday fatigue at this moment in the year. Tisha b'Av, then the month of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot...! But there's beauty and meaning in each of these three final days of this holiday season. I offer this blessing: may each of us find a point of access into the beauty and wisdom of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. May we connect with the gift of being able to ask for help in healing our world, the gift of holy pausing and sacred rest, and the gift of Torah, the story which never ends.

 


Sestina for Shemini Atzeret

I haven't been writing many poems lately. (Somehow the Days of Awe are a busy time for working rabbis; go figure.) I wanted to jump-start my poetry practice again, and I've often found that a sestina is a good way to do that. (And I haven't posted one here in a while -- I think the last sestina I posted here was Charge, back in 2009...)

Today is Shemini Atzeret, the "Eighth Day of Pausing" -- day 8 of the 7-day festival of Sukkot, the day when tradition tells us God looks at us, preparing to leave our sukkot, and says "please don't go." The penultimate stanza refers to the change in our daily liturgy at this season; between Pesach and Sukkot we ask for dew, and from now until spring we'll ask for rain, in harmony with the seasonal cycle as it unfolds in Jerusalem.


SESTINA FOR SHEMINI ATZERET


From the heights of Yom Kippur we fall
into the embrace of a world that shakes,
structures so airy and light
they don't hide the autumn gold
of Berkshire hills, the white press of sky.
Funny to think of dwelling in this house:

hardly enough wall to call it a house,
these two-by-fours we hope won't fall,
roof of cornstalks open to the sky
rattling when the wind makes them shake.
Around me the trees are strung tinsel-gold.
I inhabit bright blocks of light.

Continue reading "Sestina for Shemini Atzeret" »


A prayer for rain

GESHEM (RAIN)


Millennia ago, the earth was washed in water
connections sparked unimaginable across the water

the life we know begins cradled in water
each human being emerges in a flood of water

from ancient times we've prayed to God for water
not too much, not too little, just enough water

this year the landscape I first knew lacked water
grasslands parched, thirsting for drops of water

this year the hills where I live ran with water
seeping through roofs, swelling doors shut with water

to mark holy times we immerse ourselves in water
washing our old hurts away in water

in the city of gold rooftop tanks collect water
those who have and those who lack fight over water

in the beginning, presence hovered over water
mysterious and unknowable like deep water

the bodies we inhabit are made of water
our veins and tissues stay functional through water

we couldn't stand and offer praise without water
source of all, be kind to us: send water.


On the festival of Shemini Atzeret, in many communities, during the musaf repetition of the amidah (the extra iteration of the standing prayer), a prayer is offered which describes our holy relationship with God through the repeated motif of water. It's called tefilat geshem, "the rain prayer." That link will take you to a brief article about the prayer which also features the words of the prayer in Hebrew and, as a drop-down menu, in English.

From here on out, as we pray the amidah (the standing prayer which is central to our liturgy) daily, we'll replace the one-line request for dew with a one-line request for winds and rain. (At Pesach, we recite tefilat tal, the dew prayer, and thenceforth we daily ask for dew instead of for rain...until Shemini Atzeret.) The year oscillates between these two poles.

Many classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) take a form which looks to me, as a student of poetry, not unlike a ghazal. A ghazal is a Persian/Arabic/Urdu form which I first learned through reading the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, may his memory be a blessing. (Here's one of his poems, titled simply Ghazal.) Ghazals are written in couplets, and each line ends with a "refrain" word. A classical ghazal features meter, as well as a kind of hidden rhyme, found in the word which precedes the refrain word.

The classical prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret is beautiful poetry, and I don't mean to supplant it -- rather to add to the body of liturgical poetry of which it is a part. In that spirit, I offer this "ghazal" (I'm putting that in quotes because I haven't fully lived up to the constraints of the classical Persian form), a contemporary variation on the prayer for rain spoken today, on Shemini Atzeret. May we all be washed with blessings like falling water.

[geshem.mp3]


readwritepoem: Atzeret (Slonimer mash-up)

ATZERET (SLONIMER MASH-UP)


Two days are called atzeret, the 8th day of Sukkot
and Shavuot, when God asks us to linger

if seven represents the whole of a week
eight implies fullness and then some

we seek God's face and rejoice together
just the two of us, an intimate affair

on Yom Kippur we nullify ego
we become transparent windows

the festivals are merely preparation
for these days of holy basking

there's cosmic repair work to do
before our autumnal day of pausing

the blank parchment which holds the Torah
is holy because it contains every letter

at the festival of pouring-out water
we sluice our divine qualities like gutters

we remove (our texts, our teachings) our finery
and the movie of our togetherness fades to black


This week's prompt at ReadWritePoem, the poetics of the mash-up, invites us to interweave two poems with which we're not completely satisfied and see how we like the results.

I chose two poems from a series which is otherwise as-yet unpublished -- a series of poems I've been working on which arise out of translations of Hasidic texts. I began work on the series as my final project for the first semester of Moadim l'Simcha, the class on the Hasidic sacred year which I've been taking this year. Each poem in the series takes a different Hasidic text about one of the festivals of the year and aims to present it (in English) in a contemporary poetic idiom.

I chose these two poems to mash up because they both come out of teachings from the same rabbi -- the previous Slonimer rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky -- and both teachings are about days which are described as days of atzeret, which means something like pausing or convocation. Both were originally much longer than this; after I mashed them up I did a fair bit of judicious editing and some tightening here and there, but I preserved the two voices in dialogue.

The Hasidic teachings about the festivals of Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret which underpin this poem may not be entirely clear to the casual reader (especially now that two poems have been combined and shortened!) Here are some details which might make the symbolism less opaque:

Shavuot is when we celebrate the revelation of Torah, and marks the culmination of a 50-day process of introspection and inner work. Shemini Atzeret is a minor festival at the end of Sukkot (on the 8th day of the 7-day holiday), and marks the culmination of the year's other 50-day inner spiritual journey. The line about pouring-out water is a reference to simchat beit ha-shoeivah, an ancient Sukkot practice. 

You can read other responses to this prompt at get your poem on #95. (Sorry, no recording this week; TypePad is behaving strangely this morning and I can't seem to upload the file. I'll edit to add the audio later today if I can.)


The pause of the 8th day

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.


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Rejoicing and lingering, Torah and tears

Today is Shemini Atzeret. The name is usually translated as "The assembly of the eighth day," because it's celebrated on the eighth day of Sukkot. Which is, yes, a seven-day holiday. (Don't ask me how a holiday can simultaneously be a seven-day festival, and also have an eighth day, without therefore being considered an eight-day festival. To complicate matters, there's also Simchat Torah, which is celebrated on the ninth day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot in communities that observe two days of Yom Tov, but in Israel and in the Reform world it's celebrated on the eighth day, which makes it coterminous with Shemini Atzeret.) Right. Moving on...

In Torah we read "On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering (atzeret); you shall not work at your occupations." (Num. 29:35.) The rabbis, in typical fashion, hung an interpretation on a Hebrew pun; they asserted that God invites all those who made a Sukkot pilgrimage to tarry (atzeret) in God's presence an extra day. In other words, God is so enjoying playing host to us that God urges us to stick around just a little bit longer. Sukkot is a festival of fruition and joy, and today invites us to carry that joy beyond the boundaries of the week-long holiday, into what comes next, into our lives.

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