Since I learned about its existence as a college student, I never quite connected to Shemini Atzeret. What am I supposed to make of the eighth day of a seven day holiday? And do we really need an extra day of chag after a month of holidays?! Almost a decade ago I started hosting an annual Shemini Atzeret feminist seder to give me a reason to look forward to the day.
But this year, I didn’t need any help connecting. Rashi, the medieval commentator on the Torah, explains that the word “atzeret” comes from the root “to hold back” and suggests that Shmemi Atzeret is like a King who invited his children to a week-long celebration. On the day it was supposed to end the King said to his children: “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!”
We have been close to God since Rosh Hashana, perhaps since the start of Elul, or even since Tisha B’av. We have regularly gathered in God’s spaces, synagogue or this year’s Zoom services. We have beaten our chest, celebrated with festive meals, and now lived under God’s protection in the sukkah for a week. And like the King in Rashi’s explanation, God begs us: stay with Me, stay in religious time, for one more (or in the diaspora two more) days. And so we do, most years a bit begrudgingly for me, as I am usually so ready to return to “normal” life.
But not this year. This year I get where God is coming from and I too am desperate for just a few more days with my people. In our pre-Covid life, my wife and I welcomed hundreds of young adults into our home every week. As part of our work at Silverstein Base Hillel, our house serves as a home base for hundreds of 18 to mid 30 somethings seeking Jewish life, meaning, rabbinic support and a home cooked meal. But since mid-March our home has been empty. We no longer cram 50 people into our dining room for Shabbat dinner. Our daughter can’t toddle around the living room saying hi to her adoring fans who are sitting on the couches waiting for a session about Judaism and feminism. Instead, every day I meet our constituents one-on-one on Zoom and every night I gather with one or two dozen young adults on screen for a class. And I am grateful that technology allows us to do this gathering while we cannot sit together in person or hug or share a meal. But I miss those things with my entire soul.
For this reason, when Illinois entered phase four and gatherings were again allowed, we slowly started hosting physically distant outdoor meals. We bought TV tables and put each guest six feet apart with individually packaged Shabbat meals. We wore masks as we sang shalom aleichem and kiddush, and we broke individually plastic-wrapped bread together. Then we hosted an in-person pre-high holiday cohort class where again we spread out, for full discussions and break out groups utilizing our driveway, our garage, the balcony off our bedroom. We would do anything to be together safely.
When it came time to prepare for the holidays we took what we had learned, cleared out our garage and hosted outdoor services with masks and face shields for 25 people at a time in the driveway. And when our sukkah went up, we hosted 10 groups of 10 folks at a time for distanced gatherings and meals in our Sukkah. And this weekend we hosted the final hurrah with Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. . I can say with certainty it has been the best month of my year. The leaves are changing colors and starting to fall. It is getting dark earlier. You can smell the impending Chicago winter in the air. Every time I see a member of our community, we say I hope to see you soon, knowing we may not see them without screens between us before next spring. So this year I desperately want to say, ‘please, stay one more day, may the warmth of early fall last one more week, may we gather face to face (masked of course and six feet apart) one more time.’
I know we are strong enough to survive this winter. We have learned to care for each other from a distance. And God knows that even without another holiday, our relationships will last. But when you really love what you do and the people you care for, you want one more chance to be together. And so this past weekend I cherished every moment of our Shemini Atzeret dinner (which was our 9th annual feminist seder!) and Saturday night I relished each moment of our physically distant outdoor Simchat Torah celebration. I danced with gratitude that my people came back one more time. And as we finished our last hakafah (circle with the Torah), and read from the book of Deuteronomy, I asked them to hold back so we could see each other “panim al panim”, face to face, one more time, before they departed for the winter ahead.