Shemini Atzeret: Breaking the cycle

The oft-overlooked holiday offers an escape from old habits -- a launch pad to create new channels of love, communication, and growth
Illustrative. The spiral (helix) staircase in Ljubljana's skyscraper. (iStock)
Illustrative. The spiral (helix) staircase in Ljubljana's skyscraper. (iStock)

7 + 1 = The helix of new beginnings

You know the feeling when you’re trying to get somewhere, you’re turning round one corner, another, studiously following your map, sure you’re making progress and suddenly you’re back where you started? Of course you do. We all do.

Shemini Atzeret is the opposite of that.

The seven days of Sukkot that prelude Shemini Atzeret are illustrative of the seven days of the week, the cyclicality that the calendar provides. Shemini Atzeret, as the name suggests (“eighth [day] of convocation”) goes above and beyond this circling of time, the seven days of being. The existence of an eighth day means that we are lifted up above and beyond our cyclical existence.

Seven is representative of all time — the six days of creation and the seventh for Shabbat contain with them all that is in the world. By experiencing the seven days of the tender love fest that is Sukkot, we live the paradigm of a relationship that we hope to transplant into our homes for the rest of the year.

(7 x 7) +1 = The helix of growth

The juxtaposition of Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret parallels that of Sukkot to Pesach. Both sets of festivals function on the framework of seven-plus-one. Where Sukkot is seven days, plus one for Shemini Atzeret, Pesach is seven days multiplied by seven days, until we reach Shavuot, the additional day. Both end points celebrate the Torah and our relationship to God, albeit in different ways. The eighth day, by being outside the seven day week is also, in a sense symbolically outside time. It defies the boundaries we have set for ourselves and lifts us up into a new way of being.

From Pesach to Shemini Atzeret, we celebrate all the biblically ordained festivals. Now that we have been given the blueprint for living according to the Written Law, we are released into the second half of the year, in which we celebrate the festivals of the oral law. The often overlooked Shemini Atzeret, disguised as a whisky-toting party, is both the paradigm of connection to Torah and God and also the launch pad into the new year.

In a temporal centrifugal escape from the clasp of old habits, we are given an opportunity to create new channels of love, of communication, of growth.

Round etrog + straight lulav = Helix of finding one’s path

If I close my eyes, I see Shemini Atzeret as a point in a helix. The cyclicality of the sevens we have just experienced is pulled upwards into a spiral. Suddenly, the round etrog and the linear lulav that I have been using as props for the past week can be put aside. I have internalized both the circle and the line that these material tools represent, and I am lifted up and out of my spinning circles of ruminative living into a directed living.

Humans wander. We don’t see where we’re going even if we think we do. We make plans and try to follow a rough direction, but we get thrown off kilter. The eighth day helical nature of Shemini Atzeret puts us on a path of hope. Without us even trying, we are a fraction higher in our journey than we were last year. In its formalized topsy-turvyness, off the beaten track, Shemini Atzeret offers us the opportunity to leave behind the circling of the past and puncture the screen separating us from the new shoot stretching upwards.

As we start a new cycle of reading the Torah and of being with God, we have an opportunity to tread differently from how we did before. The message of Shemini Atzeret in its “eighth-ness” is that God will engage in our mutual relationship differently, even if we do not. The day is a gift of new beginnings, of inching up to a higher mode of being. We can rarely see advancement as we muddle through each day, and, even when we’re aiming for it, it can be difficult to wrench ourselves out the entrenchment in habit. Shemini Atzeret unshackles us from the relationship baggage we’ve been carrying round, weighing us down in the metro, boulot, dodo (rat race) of life.

Vezot HaBracha + Bereishit = The helix of our path

On Shemini Atzeret, a day on which so much of ritual protocol is discarded, the custom is to invite those who read from the Torah to fulfil their obligation, one by one. VeZot HaBracha, the final reading of the whole Torah is read as many times as it take for each individual to be summoned. Each person has the possibility to fulfill the ending that that they need for themselves. This custom recognizes the existence of numerous endings to our stories and the multivalence that we each attribute to those endings. There are many different ways to write one’s story. Many different options, most of which, with the wildest imagination, we just cannot imagine. Yet each person needs to feel they have had the chance to reach an endpoint. We discard the lulav, the symbol of linearity, of direction, on Hoshana Rabbah, the day preceding Shemini Atzeret. So too do we recognize that there will be a fresh direction spring-loaded in the helix of Shemini Atzeret.

Though we ascribe different endings to our past relationships with Torah and God in the fragmented readings of VeZot HaBracha, we start Bereishit (Genesis) together as a community. However, our individual story is not subsumed into a communal whole here: we are each Adam or Eve, starting life afresh in our own Gan Eden. We read it together as a community with the tacit recognition that each person, Moshe paternally bestowed. We each received different blessings at the end of VeZot HaBracha,

Hoshana Rabbah is spoken of as the last day on which we can do teshuva for our actions of the past year before our fate is sealed. It’s the last day on which we can trace ourselves back on the circle of actions, meeting a version of ourselves on a different stratum. The gift of Shemini Atzeret is God offering us an elevated stratum without us doing anything. The new year dawns with Shemini Atzeret and a upwards facing helix, tracing a new path.

A helix of joy

Haazinu (Devarim 32.5) describes us a “perverse and twisted generation,” “dor ikeish uptaltol.” A stubbornly positive reading of this affirms that this twistedness is inherent to our nature, but that with a little push in the right direction, we can spiral upwards to greater heights than our blind fumblings might make us imagine. As the nights grow longer and the memories of being held in the embrace of the sukkah fade, this twisted wick (p’til p’taltol) sheds light upwards and gives us hope.

The injunction to be happy on Sukkot is to be “ach sameach” — particularly joyous. The numerical count of the letters of “ach” is 21, the date of Hoshana Rabbah, signifying that happiness as we know it ends there. Happiness as we don’t know it and as we often can’t experience trapped in the boundaries of our relationships — well, that belongs to Shemini Atzeret. It’s just around the corner, waiting for all of us. The singing may sound raucous and the whirling dances exuberant but it heralds a rebirth.

This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.   (LXXXIII, Emily Dickinson)

May this year be one of upwards spiralling of happiness, togetherness with ourselves and with God.

About the Author
Tikva Blaukopf Schein lives in Jerusalem, where she runs Torah-poetry slams, teaches, and learns. She is enaged in doctoral research at Bar Ilan University on laughter. Her BA is from Oxford University in Classical and Oriental Studies.
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