Shemini Atzeret is a hard holiday to understand. It has its own identity and its own name. It is Shemini, the eighth day of Sukkot, and it is a day of “atzeret,” of gathering. But what is that supposed to mean?
One thing is clear: It is not Sukkot. You don’t sit in a sukkah, and you don’t shake the lulav. And yet it comes at the end of Sukkot; it is identified as the eight day of Sukkot and it seems to be part of the holiday. So is it part of Sukkot or is it not? I think the true meaning of the holiday lies exactly in this ambiguity.
The key can be found in Onkelos, the Aramaic translation of the Torah. Onkelos translates the word “atzeret” as “a gathering from your sukkah into your house.” In other words, its identity is that of Sukkot and not-Sukkot or, in other words, the transition itself from one to the other.
Sukkot doesn’t just end abruptly. Shemini Atzeret tells us: Stop. Pause. Own the fact that you are leaving your sukkah and entering your house, that you are finishing Sukkot and beginning the rest of the year.
Shemini Atzeret exists in the liminal space between the Yamim Noraim – Sukkot season and our familiar lives. It is a holiday that allows and encourages us to reflect on what we have learned and the insights that we have gained, to begin to internalize them, and to give serious thought as to how we can best take them with us as we move forward.
It is often exactly at this point of transition when so many of our best intentions and plans disappear into thin air. So often — at least in pre-COVID times — it has happened that we attend work conferences, retreats, or off-site training sessions. There, we might learn some great new skills and strategies that will help us improve the work that we do. At those events, we think to ourselves, “Wow! As soon as I get back to work, I’m going to begin to implement these new ideas. I’m going to be so much better at my job.” Then we head back home, and by the time the plane has landed, we are already checking our emails on our phone, dealing with urgent issues, and falling back into our regular patterns. The lessons of the last few days have been left back on our seats in the plane. Our carry-on we remembered to take off the plane, but the insights we really needed to carry with us have already been forgotten.
Shemini Atzeret is telling us that change happens only when learning becomes insight, and when insights begin to be implemented. And this happens only when we stop and own the moment of transition. A classic rabbinic interpretation of the word atzeret is “holding back.” God says to the People of Israel: “Stay back with me just one more day.” Don’t be in such a rush. Pause, reflect, and then you can leave. It is for the same reason, I believe, that we wait a few seconds after we have stepped back from our silent Amidah prayers. Stop a beat, we are being told. Own the experience of being closer to God, and then step into your normal space and frame of mind.
We are now about to leave a three-week period that has run the gamut of emotions, from self-critical introspection to unbridled joy. It has been a time of owning our faults and of presenting ourselves as honestly as possible before God. Now, we are given a time when we can feel that we’ve been given a chance to start fresh, with a clean slate, that we can feel unburdened, free to rejoice in our material success and closeness to God.
Now is our chance to pause. We now have an opportunity to stop and ask: What have we learned from this process? What do we want to be doing differently? How might we be able to look at ourselves, others, and the larger world in a new light? We have a chance now to hold on to those messages and internalize them, to think about how we will bring them back with us into our homes and our lives.
We might have had a powerful Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and a joyous Sukkot. We might have really swung the bat and connected solidly with the ball that was pitched our way. But we will never hit a home run if we fail at the follow-through. Heck, we may not even make it to first base.
This Shemini Atzeret, let’s not leave behind the lessons we have learned back in the sukkah, forgotten until we go back to the sukkah the same time next year. Let’s stop and reflect, own, internalize and follow-through. This year, let’s go for the home run.