Chag Sameach! Shmini Atzeret is an unusual holiday. It may feel like a part of Sukkot – in the same way that the last two days of Pesach, at least in the diaspora, are holidays – but in fact, Shmini Atzeret is a separate holiday, described separately in the Torah and marked by separate rituals and liturgy. This is a bit bizarre. Why is it that we have a holiday so soon after the conclusion of Sukkot? It’s not like there are a lack of holidays this time of year.
The rabbis ask the same question.
A midrash from the collection Yalkut Shimoni answers with a parable.
אמר רבי אלכסנדרי: משל למלך שבאת לו שמחה.
There once was a king whose son came to visit for a week.
Throughout that week, they celebrated with a feast– but because of all the guests, and all the work involved in hosting, they didn’t get to see much of each other. On the last day, the king came to his son, and he said, son, I want to have more quality time together. Tomorrow, there won’t be much to do. Stay another day.
So too with God and the people Israel. In the bible, there are 70 sacrifices that the people are told to make during the week of Sukkot. That’s a lot of work! Even if we just think about our own day, Sukkot is a busy holiday. We build and decorate Sukkot, we eat outside, we host lots of guests, we shake the lulav and etrog– there are a lot of responsibilities. At the end of that week, says the midrash, God asked the people Israel, “Stay another day.” On that day, all we do is celebrate– there are minimal sacrifices in the Torah, there is no obligation to sit in a Sukkah or shake a lulav– we just have the basic setup of a holiday, with candles before-hand, festive meals, and holiday services.
Stay another day. That’s what this holiday is about in this midrash– the difficulty of letting go, the desire to stretch out the precious time with family, with friends, with God. Many of us can relate to this feeling. Many of us have loved ones who live far away, or who we can’t visit now because of the pandemic. Many of us have loved ones who we are separated from even in normal times. And even the meeting that we can have with those that we care about can feel too short, and not enough. It can be difficult to say good-bye.
I know that the last day of a given experience is always the hardest for me, the time I think about all the things I haven’t done, people I haven’t seen, and conversations I haven’t had.
Many of us have also felt this while saying good-bye to someone for the last time. Many of us wished for more time with that person. We may still feel that today, whether it be days, months, or years later. I heard a story once that for me captured that sense of longing perfectly. That story takes place in a town in Japan.
There’s a quiet hillside in the town of Otsu-Shi in Japan overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Covering the hill is a lush garden, and in the garden is an old-fashioned phone booth. Anyone can enter the phone booth and pick up the rotary phone. You can talk to whoever you want, but they won’t hear you. There is no dial tone. This is the wind telephone.
The phone booth belongs to a man named Itaru Sasaki. Several years ago, when his cousin passed away, he installed it in his garden so that he would have a quiet place to go to talk to his departed cousin. About a year later, a large tsunami hit Japan, killing over 19,000 people. In the wake of the tsunami, people started coming to the wind telephone to talk to their loved ones. I learned about this telephone on the radio show and podcast This American Life. You can listen to that episode to hear more about the stories of specific people who came to talk to their parents, grandparents, cousins, and friends. They came with their families and they came by themselves. Some brought young children whose memories of the departed are vague. They came to tell their relatives how they’re doing, to ask why they were taken away. They came because even though their loved ones have been gone for five years, they still have a sense of longing for what was, and a desire to maintain a connection. The stories and voices that I heard there moved me, which is why I wanted to share this story with you as an example of people dealing with loss.
What is it that people are looking for from the wind telephone? Do they think their loved ones can hear them? Maybe– there is a culture of speaking to ancestors in Japan– but it seems clear to me that there is much more that people are finding in this phone booth. This is a place where people can grieve, where they can express their emotions and reactions to their loss. Everyone reacts differently to each loss they experience– and here is a place where people can express themselves without being judged. In the quiet garden, people find the stillness that they need to acknowledge their feelings.
It’s also a place to reach out, not just to the dead, but to the living. When people bring their families with them, they include their relatives in their mourning. They share their grief, and find solace with each other and with the knowledge that they are continuing to remember the impact of the person’s presence together. The wind telephone is a place where people can name and embody the ways that their loved ones, or the loss of their loved ones, have shaped who they are today.
In Judaism , we have our own ways of acknowledging our loss. Today, that day when God asked the people to stay another day, we think of our loved ones who will not be coming home to stay another day. In a few moments, we will say Yizkor. One of the things that feels powerful to me about the wind telephone is that it gives people a reason to set aside the time to reflect on the departed. At the end of each holiday season, during Yizkor, we Jews do the same.
Another thing that moves me is that at the wind telephone, people fill in the empty space. Without a person on the other end of the line, people must decide who they are, and what they want to bring to this encounter. Yizkor, as we perform it, is among the most liturgically flexible and open service in the entire year. We have a few verses to recite at the start, a few prayers we say at the end, but much of what we will do here is reciting poetry, which we vary each year, and standing in silence. True, there are set words for us to say—but those are few in number, and we can use the quiet time during Yizkor for our own words as well. Like the people using the phone, we can use the time to remember details of our loved ones, to reflect on how our lives have changed since they left, or on what their loss has meant to us.
There’s another important facet to Yizkor that is important to mention. We do it together. Although we each experience our own grief as individuals, we can look around and see that we are not alone. By coming together as a community, even on Zoom, especially on Zoom, we show each other that we care, not just about the people we are remembering, but about each other. If we didn’t, we could remember our loved ones anywhere. By remembering them here, together, we exemplify our commitment to community and to our Jewish traditions.
Today, we have an extra day to savor this holiday time with God. On the day that God asks us to stay another day, we do the same with our loved ones through yizkor. Though they won’t answer the telephone, we have these moments to savor our memories.