The Hampton Synagogue
Westhampton Beach, NY
Shemini Atzeret, 5777
Last year, The New York Times’ David Brooks published a column, and also a TED Talk, and also a book, on the values with which we give our lives’ meaning. Specifically, he spoke about two sets of values, which he referred to as “resume values” and “eulogy values,” and in that context, I want to discuss two biblical characters whose shadows loom large over Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The first is Solomon, and the second is Moses. Today’s Haftarah describes Solomon presiding over the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which took place during perhaps the lavish and festive Sukkot ever celebrated. This moment, in which Solomon welcomed God’s presence into the Temple he built to be the crown jewel of the Jerusalem he beautified, capital of the nation he unified with the wealth he accumulated and the wisdom he acquired was, without a doubt, the apex of Solomon’s career, the highlight that summed up who he was and what he accomplished — the lede in his obituary.
But we come to this Haftarah after having just read the Book of Kohelet, in which an older Solomon who has suffered setbacks and travails questions the enduring value of his life’s work. In the Book of Kohelet, Solomon describes himself with the words “hayiti melekh al Yehuda virushalayim — I was the King over Judea and Jerusalem.” Not “I am the King,” but “I was the King,” because, by the end, his reign was undermined by his own excesses and personal entanglements. His kingdom was riven by civil war almost immediately following his death, and his son was left with only two of the twelve tribes. His Temple, for all its grandeur and elegance, never lived up to the promise of its first moments, and was eventually destroyed. The Talmud actually records a debate as to whether Solomon had lost his share in the world to come – in other words, our Sages were asking whether Solomon’s defining moments were the rapid succession of achievements of his youth, or the years of decline, mediocrity, and scandal that followed.
We read of Moses twice as well. This past Shabbat, we found Moses at the peak of Mount Sinai, asking God, “Show me of your glory,” to which God responds, remarkably, in the affirmative. Moses was about to descend from the mountain carrying the set of Tablets that embodied a restored covenant between the people and God following the sin of the Golden Calf, and his face shone with a bright radiance. It was, perhaps, his finest moment as leader of the Israelites.
We encounter Moses once again on a mountaintop as we read the final torah portion of the year tomorrow, but this time at the end of his life. His desperate prayers to set foot in the Promised Land denied, he dies alone atop Mount Nebo and is buried somewhere in the wilderness such that none of the people he led so faithfully for two generations would even know where to visit his gravesite. Again, we may wonder whether Moses’ enduring legacy is the selfless and dedicated leadership he embodied over so many decades, or the tragic fact that he ultimately fell just a bit short of his goal at the end.
So in a sense, Shemini Atzeret is all about the distance between the celebration of Solomon dedicating his Temple and the somber reflections of Kohelet. Shemini Atzeret is about the gap between the triumphant Moses representing his people before God on Mount Sinai and his solitary, lonely death forty years later.
In fact, this gap is actually encoded into Shemini Atzeret itself. On one hand, Shemini Atzeret is the culmination of Sukkot. It is a final day of celebration and thanksgiving added because, our tradition tells us, even God does not want this season of spiritual highlights to end. On the other hand, Shemini Atzeret is also the first day of the rest of the year. We pray for rain, for our sustenance, and express our trepidation for the future. We are thinking less about the transcendent, clarifying moments we experienced over the past several weeks, and more about the return to the daily grind. The Talmud reports that, as they prepared to leave Jerusalem at the end of the holiday, the people would watch the smoke rising from the Temple’s altar into the heavens – not to be inspired one final time by the majesty and mystery of the service, but literally to see which way the wind was blowing, and whether it portended favorable or unfavorable conditions for the planting season awaiting them back home.
Perhaps the very reason that Shemini Atzeret is celebrated as a holiday is to remind us that, even as this special time of year already begins to recede into memory, those moments we experienced are still significant, still defining. In that sense, Shemini Atzeret is the bridge connecting the power of the High Holy Days and the joy of Sukkot with the grind of everyday life.
What is true over the course of a holiday season is also true over the course of a lifetime. Solomon’s achievements may not have withstood the test of time – and his own actions may have hastened their disintegration – but they were still real; they still mattered. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that we can still celebrate the dedication of the Temple even though we know what happened next, and even though what happened next may have been inevitable.
After all, we are all like Solomon – nobody who has ever walked the face of the earth can fully live up to the potential of their greatest achievements. We are also all like Moses – nobody can fully realize all of their goals and dreams. But that doesn’t mean that we are all failures. It means that we are human. So Shemini Atzeret is really about bridging that gap, reminding us that what we accomplish and what we strive for does matter, does have an impact, and does define who we are through the ups and downs of our own lives.
This is certainly true for what David Brooks refers to as “resume values,” but it is also true for “eulogy values,” for the relationships, and connections, and bonds that are so much a part of who we are. And so Shemini Atzeret is a natural time to recite Yizkor and consider the lives and legacies of our loved ones. As we reflect, we may think about those Solomon-like moments, those critical episodes that so often serve as a prism through which we see a loved one, that encapsulate so much about who a loved one was, and what they mean to us.
Sometimes, though, we think from the Moses perspective, not about a particular moment, but about a faithful and steady presence in our lives for so many years. We may not have always arrived at our destination, and often there were wrong turns, but we remember those who were there with us every step of the way.
And, as we reflect on our memories and experiences, the legacies of our loved ones inspire us to consider what defines us – what moments will be the ones that truly tell our stories to those who will remember us, and to which promised land are we accompanying them over the course of our own lives.
Please rise for the Yizkor service.