Parashah of the week: Shemini Atzeret

“May Hashem our God be with us, as he was with our ancestors. May we never be abandoned or forsaken” I Kings 8:57


A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

It’s the climax of over three weeks of almost unrelenting eating and annual leave. As the seven days of Succot fade into a mysterious addendum known as Shemini Atzeret (literally “the Eighth Gathering”), we could be forgiven for borrowing a popular tune from another festival— Dayeinu, “It is enough!”.

Enough Judaism for the time being! We’ve eaten our fill of honey cake, fasted and prayed with intensity and sat shivering in an outdoor hut for a week. Dayeinu! We are thoroughly Jewed-out.

Spare a thought then for our ancestors, who stood on Shemini Atzeret in antiquity having just concluded a grand 14-day grand festival celebrating the inauguration of the Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon. Fourteen days, at the shul of shuls.

I’ve often wondered if the choice of haftarah for Shemini Atzeret reflects something deeper than the fact that the Temple was sanctified at this time of year. I believe an approach is evident if we turn our attention to the prelude to our haftarah, which begins: “And it was, when Solomon finished praying to Hashem all of this prayer” (1 Kings, 8:54)

Solomon’s prayer occupies no fewer than 31 verses of the chapter and is marked by what seems to be a very deliberate refrain. On eight occasions, Solomon asks that when he or the nation prays, God should “hear [it] from heaven”. So frequent is this request that in the central section of the prayer, it forms the opening words of every other verse.

Fast forward to our haftarah, and the gap has closed — figuratively and literally. No longer is the Almighty listening to our prayers from afar. Rather, the prayers are to be “near to Hashem day and night” (8:59) and God should “be with us”.

The gap between heaven and earth is bridged through the Temple — Jacob’s ladder connecting the two realms.

We have spent the past two to three weeks doing precisely the same. Through our focus, prayers and repentance during the Ten Days of Repentance (indeed, on Yom Kippur we actively strip ourselves of our base humanity, assuming the manner of angels) and then detachment from our regular comfort zone on Succot, we have done our part in bridging that same gap, stretching earth to touch heaven. Well, almost. There is one more step to take and the bridge can be spanned.

That step is Shemini Atzeret. Its challenge today is identical to what is was thousands of years ago in Jerusalem. As we approach the end of the busy festive period, what is the manner of our departure?

When every sinew of our physical being just wants to get back to “normal life”, dismantle the succah, return the machzor to its shelf and cut back on the cholesterol, do we run as fast as we can, gleefully “free’”from Judaism for another season, or do we count our blessings, and celebrate one day more?

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