Fill in the Blank
When I began to study Torah seriously as a college student, I was introduced to its spiritual depths. I found that the meanings of the holidays went beyond the agricultural and historical sources, and often had complex spiritual teachings woven in. I remember that, back in those days, I could find little spiritual or poetic meanings of Shemini Atzeret. It was blank, or more accurately, a cipher.
I discovered the key when I learned that the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, is known in the Talmud as “Atzeret.” The word means something like “stopping time.” Shavuot, which falls seven weeks after Passover, concludes a long period of spiritual work. For those clued into the spiritual study of the calendar, Passover is not only a time of remembering the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt; it is also a time to learn how we exit from the slavery of bad habits, destructive thought, emotion, behavior. Right after Passover starts, we have that seven-week period called the counting of omer, where, instructed by kabbalah, we thoroughly examine all parts of our lives that are resistant to the light of truth. On Shavuot, we hope to be so cleansed of impediments that the light of Torah can shine into us on that day when we recall the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. And then that holiday period comes to a “close” — Shavuot is called atzeret (the closing).
With this in mind, I looked at Shemini Atzeret, shemini meaning “eighth” or “eighth day” — it falls eight days after Sukkot begins, and concludes Sukkot. But did it also have a sense of the “Atzeret” of Shavuot, of a closing day where we celebrate freedom and the giving of Torah?
The Jewish calendar, with the aid of Chasidic texts, takes us on a deep journey. We are taught in the Torah that the first Shavuot, with all its promise, failed at some great level. Moshe went up the mountain after the Ten Commandments were spoken on Shavuot, but when he came down 40 days later, the people were cavorting with Molten Calf. The tablets were broken — symbolic of the broken heart of God and the broken spirit of Moshe. Only the penitence of the Jewish people could repair the break.
We repented all that summer; we wanted to be worthy of the name God gave us in Exodus chapter 19 just before that first Shavuot — a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets, according to tradition, on the first day of Elul. He was to stay 40 days. Ten days before he was to return, we recommitted ourselves to becoming a kingdom of priests. On that day we accepted God as our sovereign — that is Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate the sovereignty of the divine in our lives. On the 40th day, when Moshe finally returns, he finds us in disciplined, contemplative, quiet fasting — that was Yom Kippur, the the culmination of our atoning for the calf.
In the Torah, the Jewish people immediately begin to build the mishkan — a habitat in which the tablets of the covenant would be housed. We symbolize that building with our construction of the sukkah, a habitat that represents the new habits we assume, so that our lives can house the new spiritual self born during these holidays.
At the closing of this period, on Shemini Atzeret, we step away from the sukkah, but not fully back into our lives. It is as if God were saying: exit from all these holidays, from all these observances, but spend a last day with me. There is no special observance on Shemini Atzeret — no matzah, no historical commemoration, no fasting, no shofar — a blank. The blank is to be filled in by each of us, as a community, in our unique individuality.
The ancient rabbis showed amazing reticence around Shemini Atzeret; they usually fill all the holidays with interpretations and historical allusions. I believe this rabbinic reticence is intentional; their quietude helps define the holidays. The tradition quiets down for a day and says: you, individual Jew who has been doing so much spiritual work, you fill in the meaning. God gave us a Torah and a tradition — let’s see what we make of it.
Of course, such reticence could not last, but the way the tradition finally filled in the day is another stroke of genius. Sometime in the post-talmudic period, the celebration called Simchat Torah was born and the second day of Shemini Atzeret took on its own meaning. Since that time, the second day of Shemini Atzeret is when we end the book of Deuteronomy and begin Genesis amid singing, dancing and celebration.
Take a deeper look. A holiday called Atzeret, in which Jews sing, dance, cavort, make merry? Is this not a second chance at that original atzeret, the first giving of the Torah when we were cavorting with the calf? We failed God and ourselves in the aftermath of Shavuot — when Moshe tried to give us the tablets, we had already rejected him.
But on Shemini Atzeret, after all the reflection, contemplation and joy we have gone through from the High Holidays through Sukkot — and then our own private day of reflecting on the whole process — we burst into joy. On Shemini Atzeret, through our quiet putting together of the whole process, we have finally learned what to dance for, what music to dance to and, on Simchat Torah — when we reenact Moshe coming down the mountain — we finally get the giving of Torah right.
Happy quiet, happy dancing!
Mordecai Finley is senior rabbi and co-founder of Ohr HaTorah.