When the Party’s Over — Shemini Atzeret 5783

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

My friend and drumming teacher, Chris Parker, once taught me a lesson about music that has always stayed with me: “Music,” he said, “is sound organized in time.” In other words, sound without time is just noise. Time without sound is silence. But when sound is organized in time, that’s when it becomes something meaningful and beautiful. Music, therefore, is only music if it has a beginning as well as an ending. There is no song that does not end, for if it did not end, it would not be a song. 

Today is about endings. This day on the Jewish calendar is known as Shemini Atzeret. The strange thing about Shemini Atzeret is that no one knows exactly what it is. Of course, the command to celebrate this holiday comes from the Torah itself, but the text, which we read just a few moments ago, is notoriously short on details. The Torah doesn’t even dedicate a single full verse to the holiday. Instead, it simply teaches that immediately after the seven biblically prescribed days of Sukkot, an additional day should be set aside as sacred, with its own attendant sacrifice to be offered at the Temple. 

Throughout the ages, our sages have pondered and puzzled over this holiday, debating endlessly its meaning and significance. Is it part of Sukkot, or its own holiday? If it’s part of Sukkot, then why is it mentioned separately, and why does it have its own sacrifice? If it’s not part of Sukkot, then why refer to it as the “eighth day,” which implies a direct connection to Sukkot. Even the word that the Torah uses for the holiday, עֲצֶ֣רֶת, is mysterious. No one knows exactly what it means. 

Rabbinic tradition, in the end, basically responds with a shrugging emoji: we don’t know what Shemini Atzeret is, but we know we must observe it. So they refer to it by its own unique name, Shemini Atzeret, but call it “z’man simhateinu,” the season of our rejoicing, which is the same epithet they use for Sukkot. Because it might be part of Sukkot, the rabbis say we should err on the side of caution and eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but because it might not still be Sukkot, they say we should err on the side of caution and not recite the blessing for dwelling in the sukkah, lest by reciting an unnecessary blessing we inadvertently take God’s name in vain. It’s bizarre. 

Some commentators argue that Shemini Atzeret is – as my friend, contemporary commentator Emily Jaeger colorfully puts it – like a private after-party. One of the many possible meanings for atzar, the Hebrew root of the word atzeret, is “to hold back” or “detain.” Picking up on this definition, Rashi imagines God as a king who throws a large banquet. After all the other guests start to leave, the king urges his beloved children to stay one more day, too painful is the thought of parting with them. Following the lengthy and exhausting weeklong rager that is Sukkot – which according to some traditions is meant to be a holiday for all of humanity – God asks us, the Jewish people, his most cherished guests, to linger a little longer (Rashi, commentary on Lev. 23:37). 

To be sure, there is something quite heartwarming about envisioning God as longing for intimacy with God’s children. However, I suspect the true meaning of Shemini Atzeret may be precisely the opposite of this, that the holiday is actually about ending the party, not keeping it going. After all, another definition of atzar is “to stop.” On modern Israeli roads, for example, cars know when to stop when they see a red sign with the word atzur emblazoned on it; or, at least they would in theory, if Israelis actually considered such signs more than mere suggestions. Perhaps, then, God is less like a king who urges his beloved children to remain at the banquet for one more day, and more like Josephine turning on the social hall lights to not-so-subtly signal that she wants us to clear out at the end of a long night. Perhaps, in other words, Shemini Atzeret is God’s way of saying, “Party’s over, friends. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

This is precisely what happens in today’s haftarah, from the biblical book of Kings. The story is set immediately following the construction of the first Temple, which Solomon son of David, arguably the greatest of the kings of ancient Israel, commissioned to be built atop Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. After the Temple is built, King Solomon invites the entire kingdom to Jerusalem to celebrate its consecration. The party lasts through Sukkot. And then, on the 8th day – meaning the day immediately following Sukkot – Solomon sent the people away (I Kings 8:66): בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי֙ שִׁלַּ֣ח אֶת־הָעָ֔ם. The 8th day, in other words, is when the king officially ends the celebration, telling everyone to go home. The king doesn’t keep the party going. Quite the contrary, the 8th day is when the king proclaims that the party’s over. 

What’s noteworthy, however, is that neither the people nor the king are sad about the end of the celebration. When King Solomon tells them to leave, the people bid the king good-bye and go to their homes joyful and glad of heart, “וַֽיְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיֵּלְכ֣וּ לְאׇהֳלֵיהֶ֗ם שְׂמֵחִים֙ וְט֣וֹבֵי לֵ֔ב”. Why would the party’s conclusion be cause for joy, rather than sadness? Because just as sound can only be music if it has an ending, an endless experience cannot be joyful. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Only that is precious which passes away. Only that is priceless, which will not last forever.” 

The television series The Good Place, which ended in 2020, illustrated this idea perfectly. Briefly, The Good Place followed the journey of four unlikely friends through the afterlife. In the last season, when the friends finally make it to the actual “good place,” the show’s euphemism for heaven, they are surprised to discover that the inhabitants are all miserable. They wonder: how can this be? How can souls be sad in a realm overflowing with endless delights? Eventually they discover that it is precisely because the delights are endless that they are, sooner or later, rendered utterly joyless. When everything is always amazing, nothing really is. Paradoxically, then, true joy can only be experienced if it comes to an end. And while we may be saddened by the conclusion of any enjoyable experience – whether that be an incredible party, a beautiful piece of music, a delicious meal, a tender relationship with a dear friend or loved one, a life – we might take some comfort in recognizing that it is the very fact of its ending which made the experience enjoyable in the first place.

The Sukkot festival is known in our tradition as z’man simhateinu, the season of our joy. We are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot; indeed, as the Torah says, we are “to have nothing but joy / v’hayita akh sameah”. Beyond this, Sukkot is the culmination of a nearly month-long High Holy Day celebration, a season that can be physically and emotionally taxing, but simultaneously is also – if you’re doing it right – saturated with deep meaning, extraordinary beauty, and joyful exaltation. We may wish this holiday season would never end, that we could, as the psalmist puts it in the passage we recite twice daily during this period, “dwell in the Infinite’s house all the days of my life.” But the truth is that the heights of the High Holy Days and the joy of z’man simhateinu can’t last forever. If they were unending, they would in fact be rendered flat and dull. In order for these days to be high and holy, in order for our festival days to be joyous, they must end. So we have Shemini Atzeret, the period at the end of this long sentence, the silence at the end of the symphony. And while the end may be sad – or even, for some of us, a relief – our tradition also calls Shemini Atzeret z’man simhateinu, the season of our joy, because if the end is what makes joy possible to begin with, then the end itself is, in some important sense, joyous.

Perhaps it is for this reason that, according to tradition, we recite Yizkor during Shemini Atzeret, calling to mind the memory of departed loved ones on this day in particular. There is profound comfort, perhaps even joy, to be discovered in the symbolism of Shemini Atzeret. If endings render meaningful all that precedes them, then the fact that our loved ones’ lives have come to an end is precisely, even if counterintuitively, what made them so special in the first place. If our loved ones lived forever, their time with us would be less precious; their impact upon us would be less pronounced. 

On Shemini Atzeret, we fondly recall, sing, and celebrate the songs our ancestors composed with their lives. Like all beautiful music, we never want those songs to end. But on this festival that is at its core about endings, we remember that the end is what makes it music in the first place. Let us listen, then, to the songs of our loved ones on this day. Let us commit them to memory; let those songs stir our souls and stay in our hearts; and let those songs move us to make our own beautiful music, for our loved ones shared the music of their lives with us so that we might make our own.

And as we conclude these high holy days by singing the songs of our lost loved ones, let each and every one of us come to understand that all life, like all music, must end; including, of course, our own. Let us ask ourselves: What will the music of our lives be? What notes will we write on the staff? What will the song sound like, when it is all finished? Only when we are mindful of the fact that our lives are finite can we truly become the composers of the songs of our lives. 

May the music and the memory of our ancestors endure as a source of inspiration and blessing. May their souls and their songs be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life. And may this day inspire us to make beautiful music of our precious and passing lives.

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