What Shemini Atzeret Teaches Us about Love

There is no other way to say it. When compared with all the other chagim, Shemini Atzeret is unusual. It commemorates no historical event and it marks no point in the agricultural cycle. So what are we supposed to do on it? And what is it all about? The Torah describes Shemeni Atzeret twice but each time only in sparse language. Once it says, “[For] a seven day period, you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. On the eighth day, it shall be a holy occasion for you, and you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. It is a [day of] detention. You shall not perform any work of labor.” Later the Torah tells us, “The eighth day shall be a time of restriction for you; you shall not perform any mundane work.” Atzeret is translated alternatively as a day of detention, restriction, or sometimes even convocation. But none of these translations are particularly helpful, every Yom Tov is a time of both gathering and restriction.

Rashi famously explains that this final Yom Tov is called a day of detention because God is telling the Jewish people, “‘I have detained you [to remain] with me.’ This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: ‘My sons! Please, stay with me just one more day, [for] it is difficult for me to part with you!’” The midrash Rashi quotes is a beautiful one, it emphasizes God’s love for his children, the Jewish people, but will one more day really make a difference? After all the time we have spent thinking about our relationship with God, after all of Elul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, what will one more day do?

In many ways the end of Sukkot is a replay of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Yesterday, the last day of Chol Chamoed Sukkot, was Hoshana Rabba. “Day after day you will seek God,” the Navi tells the Jewish people. The Yerushalmi explains that this means there are two days in particular on which we stand before God in judgement, Rosh Hashana and Hoshana Rabba. Together they are Yemei HaDin, Days of Judgement. On both days there is an important ritual object that we must use to perform a mitzvah and plead our case. On Rosh Hashana it is the shofar, and on Hoshana Rabba it is the aravot. Both the call of the shofar and the beating of the aravot are meant to express something deep within us that words alone cannot convey.

Following Hoshana Rabba is Shemini Atzeret, just as Rosh Hashana is followed by Yom Kippur. And there is something of Yom Kippur in Shemini Atzeret. On both days we recite Yizkor, but the similarities do not end there. On Yom Kippur we ask for forgiveness, and on Shemini Atzeret we plead for much needed rain in Eretz Yisrael. But despite these weighty requests we go into both days with a sense of optimism and joy. These are days of simcha not trembling, because we know that we have already been judged favorably just a few days earlier. And neither Yom Kippur nor Shemini Atzeret has a ritual object that is associated with it. On one day we fast, on the other we feast; but on both days nothing stands between us and the divine.

But what does this second opportunity provide for us that we couldn’t have accomplished earlier? Why is the opportunity to go through this process not just once but twice, an expression of God’s love for the Jewish people?

“Love,” writes the philosopher Alain Badiou, “is a quest for truth… truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?… Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.”
Love, according to Badiou, is not just an encounter with another person, instead it is fundamentally about a change in perspective and identity. Love represents our ability to see the world not just through our eyes, but through those of another, and our ability to internalize their lived experiences so that those events become part of our being.

First on Hoshana Rabba and now on Shemini Atzeret we have a second chance, and a second opportunity to reenact what we did and said on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But embedded in this second chance is also the opportunity to see ourselves and our actions from a second perspective, from the perspective of another. To see our actions, both good and bad, through the eyes of our family members and loved ones.
God might be doing this as well as he judges us for a second time on Hoshana Rabba and Shemini Atzeret. “Kasha alai” “It is difficult for me,” God says, according to Rashi. “I’m not ready to part with you yet.” Perhaps it is difficult because even after Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot he wants one more opportunity to examine all of our actions, all of our mistakes, and all of our missed opportunities but this time from our perspective. The process of moving from the perspective of One to Two takes time, seeing through the eyes of another is difficult. And on Shemini Atzeret God says stay with me, I need, we need, one more day.

In a few moments we’ll recite Yizkor for the second time in less than two weeks. We will recall those who were murdered in the Holocaust, we will recall those who gave their lives in defense of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, and we will remember all the loved ones we have lost. In this second remembering that we have before us, we also have a second opportunity.

The Gemara says: “The Sages taught: At the time of Rebbe’s passing, he said be careful with the honor of your mother. He said further: My lamp should be lit in its usual place, my table should be set in its usual place, and the bed should be arranged in its usual place.” Rebbe first told his sons to take care of their mother, the focus of so much of his love, because he saw life from the perspective of two and not just one. But then he turned to what he was leaving behind, his family, his work, his light. Rebbe was saying, let my light, my legacy, continue to burn and continue to be felt in this world.

All of us can think of those we have lost and the light they left behind. As we stand here now once again with those whom we have lost, let our love for them allow us to see and hear once more their perspective and to feel what they felt. To see things this time through their eyes. So that even if we missed it many years ago, we can hear clearly what light they hoped to leave behind and how they hoped we would keep that flame lit.

May we merit to hear the voices of those we have lost, so that this year we can carry on their legacy as they would have wanted us to. And now, as we enter the final hours of the Yom Tov season, let us hope and pray that this year God looks at us with a love that includes seeing our struggles, challenges and mistakes through our eyes. And finally, may we learn on this Shemini Atzeret to relate to our families, friends, and community not just from one perspective but from two; not just from our perspective but also from theirs.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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