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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.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow's essay Seed for Winter (reprinted from Seasons of our Joy) suggests that Shemini Atzeret is the fourth major festival of the Jewish year, ultimately on par with the big three, and that it originated as a way to welcome winter -- but because the roads to the Temple weren't necessarily passable in wintertime, the festival was held early, just after the fall festival of Sukkot. Reb Arthur writes:

Just as the spring festival of new life and liberation was not complete till we had counted seven weeks plus one day to the summer festival of fullness and revelation, so the fall festival of ingathering and redemption was not complete till we had counted seven days plus one day to the winter festival of sleeping and inwardness. When the pilgrims returned home, they needed just behind them not the boisterous joy of the sukkah and the water pouring, but the quiet celebration of a sense of inner peace.

...[B]y tacking Sh'mini Atzeret right on to Sukkot, the Torah made sure that it would almost disappear from sight -- like a seed disappearing into the ground; made sure that the tradition would speak of the three pilgrimage festivals -- Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot -- while almost forgetting the fourth. Almost -- but never quite....

Shemini Atzeret is mostly significant in my own practice because it marks a liturgical change. From Passover through the end of Sukkot, during the Amidah (central standing prayer of Jewish worship) we say a a one-line prayer for tal, dew. Starting at Shemini Atzeret, we change that to a one-liner blessing God Who makes the wind blow and the rains fall. There are special prayers for rain said today, too. (That link shows the classical text; here's a version that takes our foremothers into account as well as our forefathers.) This subtle liturgical shift twice a year keeps me conscious of where we are in the seasonal cycle, and of my relationship with the ecological cycle of rain.

Since I belong to a Reform shul, today is also Simchat Torah in my world, so this morning we took two scrolls from the ark and read, in one, the very end of the Torah; in the other, the very beginning. When I saw the first scroll turned all the way to its endpoint -- the edge of the parchment, attached to the wooden roller -- I got strangely choked-up. The Torah seems so solid, so endless, when we read it week by week, but here we are at the place where it is fastened together, the very end of the story. I felt a sudden sense of loss, coming to the end of the last word. Kind of how I imagine I will feel when the seventh Harry Potter book finally comes out, and I read the final sentence, and the grand story is all over. (Except, you know, more significant. Obviously.)

And then we rolled the Torah up, closed it, dressed it reverently...and took out the next one, in order to read the opening lines of Bereshit. Here, too, the physical scroll's vulnerability struck me -- the start of the parchment, the beginning of the tale -- and so did the emotional impact of going from the end of the story right back to the beginning again. This isn't a story with beginnings and ends, not really. The linear trajectory is also an endless cycle, and the instant one thing ends the next thing begins. Moses' journey ends just before he reaches where he thought he was going -- and in the next split second, God is again beginning to create the heavens and the earth.

We are never finished with the work of reading Torah, just as we are never finished with the work of being human beings, of becoming who we want to become, of embodying the potential of our lives in the fullest. Our story keeps going. These are tears of joy.

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