On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn assembly: you shall not work at your occupations… (B’midbar 29:35).
We find our way back from self-imposed exile
and then we arrive to stand before You.
We set down our burden, lighten our load –
yet still feel unready to set forth again.
You invite us to linger: to bask in Your love
and rejoice in the grace we were too far to feel.
We stay our departure for just one more day,
then buoyed and unhindered, we journey once more.
In his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew describes the ongoing journey on which we find ourselves, “We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance – pushing forward to get back home. Teshuvah – turning, return, repentance – is the central gesture of the High Holiday season. It is a circular motion.” Rabbi Lew refers to the classic work on the Days of Awe: On Teshuvah, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who teaches that on moving round the circumference of a circle, there is an illusion that the starting point is getting further away, but actually it is also getting closer. Rabbi Lew writes, “The calendar year is such a circle. On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins, and every day is one day farther from the starting point; but every day is also a return, a drawing closer to the completion of the cycle.” He describes the prophet Samuel’s annual circuit of serving the people of Israel: he would go every year from Ramah to Beth El to Gilgal to Mitzpeh and back again to Ramah. Rav Soloveitchik notes, “The moment he left Ramah, he was already returning there. Everywhere he went, he was heading for home.”
Shemini Atzeret is the day which follows Sukkot. Having recently reached our starting point we are readying ourselves to set out again. Rashi interprets the word “atseret” which is understood to mean a solemn assembly, as being derived from the root “la’atsor” – to stop or stay back, as the Talmud says God requests, “Stay back with Me one more day, your parting from Me is hard.” (Sukkah 55b). Rashi deems this a sign of God’s affection for His people, just like children who think to take leave of their father and he asks them to stay one day more.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Wurka cites the verse, “And they journeyed from Sukkoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness.” (Shemot 13:20) and plays on the place-name Etham, which means, “I shall be faultless,” as in Psalms 19:14, “Keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins that they may not overpower me; then I shall be faultless and I will be clear from great transgression.” So the Rebbe of Wurka envisages us setting out after Sukkot feeling pure and unsullied.