I am grateful to Rabbi Kenneth Stern, rabbi of Gesher Shalom, Fort Lee, NJ for his sermon of Shemini Atzeret, which gave rise to these thoughts.
Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly is sui generis in the Torah for one reason-it has no stated rationale or reason for its observance. The text simply ordains an “atzeret,” translated as an assembly or as a refraining (from work), on the eighth day following the seven-day celebration of Succot. It is both independent of Succot and its appendage. In the liturgy, the mood of Succot, rejoicing, is extended into this additional day.
Thus Shemini Atzeret emerges as the answer to our prayers for one more day, especially when we anticipate the ending of a period of happiness and joy. The rabbis poignantly understand this day as one in which God urges His beloved Israel to linger with Him a little while longer-one more day-and not go off to its mundane affairs of work and ordinary activity during which the Lover is not paid much attention to.
To me Shemini Atzeret represents a “concert” which has ended but the audience shouts encore and is given the extra few moments of musical joy as the expression of the artist’s generosity of her gift. Shemini Atzeret is symbolic of the extra, the untapped talent, strength and capacity deep within each of us. When we arrive at a designated end- the performance is over, the job is done, one’s life nears termination, somehow there is always a little more, a little more goodness, a little more joy, a little more love that can be extracted from deep within our spirits and souls. When we feel exhausted physically, emotionally even spiritually, in some extraordinary way there is still a little more left with which to brighten and bless our world. I believe that the sense of gratefulness with which we view the world is the source for this ‘neshama yeteirah,’ this additional soulfulness that allows us to touch inner resources never before imagined. Seeing the glass not only half- full but a blessing even with a few drops is a powerful source of spiritual strength and fortitude. Perhaps this ability provides the definition of heroism, the transcendent moment of one more day, one more mitzvah, one more act of kindness, one more word of gratitude.
Like the High Holydays, which are without ritual except for the Shofar, Shemini Atzeret emerges as a time of pure spirituality during which all we have is ourselves, our loved ones and our God. Perhaps Shemini Atzeret was designed this way to serve as the closing parenthesis of this extended period of spiritual renewal and preparation for the New Year. Tomorrow is Shabbat Bereshit, the Sabbath of Genesis, a new beginning. We are grateful for the one more day of preparation so that our performance in the realm of the human spirit will excel each day of the coming year.