On Shemini Atzeret

BY RABBI JAMES STONE GOODMAN

Shemini Atzeret — Oh my God, it’s so confusing. The eighth day of Assembly. It’s after Sukkot and if you came to Jerusalem during Sukkot, you were to hang around (atzeret, from a root which means to hang around) another day. But what’s confusing is: is it Sukkot, or another day?

The rabbis: an independent day. It’s like a conclusion to the festival of Sukkot. But it has no rituals. There is a switch to the prayer for rain, and beginning around the 10th century, a second day of Shemini Atzeret began to assume the feel of a celebration of Torah – thus, Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah came later but it kind of eclipsed Shemini Atzeret.

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And there is Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret, the holy memorial prayers dedicated to our dear ones who have gone before us.

In Israel, I believe, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are the same day. I think. We add an extra day outside the Land, and so Simchat Torah follows Shemini Atzeret, which follows Sukkot. But then again, Reform doesn’t celebrate the extra day outside the Land. Oh, I’m so confused. Shemini Atzeret is a serious day, it’s a non-work day.

Here’s the sequence: Sukkot, completely joyous. We are enjoined to be ach sameach on Sukkot (Deut. 16:15) — completely happy. I wish people ach sameach on Sukkot instead of chag sameach. How to be completely happy? That’s always the problem — easy to say, hard to pull off. Is it reasonable to be completely happy? That question eclipses for me all the confusion of Shemini Atzeret following Sukkot.

Sukkot — completely happy. Shemini Atzeret — pause and remember. Simchat Torah — happy happy again. So it is reasonable, it is even expected, and if there is a pause in the absolute happiness? That’s life. If we have visited there, we can live there. It’s a high standard, happiness, we are a people of high standards.

I am standing in what I call my mind in a mythical place called, oh, Shemini Atzeret, Kentucky as I write this. I have no rituals but I am obsessed with the lingering possibility of living – entirely happy.

I am on a street corner waiting for the light to change. I am holding a cup of Ethiopian roast coffee. I begin to speak poetry:

There’s a line in Torah

v’hayita ach sameach/and you shall be entirely happy —

that ach is the clue

you shall be ach sameach

you shall be ach happy

it’s a modifier —

Either you shall be mostly happy

or you shall be completely happy

unmixed unmitigated

you shall be entirely happy —

that’s how most of the commentators

bring it down.

We are ach persons

entirely extremist obsessive

completely engaged by the tinker with existence

to be in the world beautiful

redemptive

meaning-full

ach sameach

entirely happy.

How we got this way

and not negativists is a great wonder.

The draw of the opposite is strong —

to be an achi person / is to be entirely happy

completely.

We turn the old teachings and turn them

shake them upside down, see what falls out

we are obsessed with life

not on life’s terms

but our dream of life —

we are Jews.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.