Shemini Atzeret — the festival that’s a paradox

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence on the ‘Charlie Brown’ day which gives us a chance to think about change


green maize field in front of dramatic clouds and rain

If 360 years ago, Samuel Pepys had come to shul just one day earlier, his diary would never have included his famous reflection, “But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God… indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”

However, Pepys visited the Creechurch Lane synagogue on Simchat Torah, not Shemini Atzeret.

Shemini Atzeret is possibly the “Charlie Brown” of Jewish festivals. The Torah gives it no special foods or customs.

After the splendour and awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the symbols of Succot, it is a featureless Yom Tov prelude to the singing, dancing and exuberance of Simchat Torah.

In Israel, where the two are combined, the Torah’s Shemini Atzeret is all but lost in the rabbinic celebration.

In shul, we have Yizkor and the Prayer for Rain. In all other respects, we have the creative opportunity for a do-it-yourself Yom Tov. It is the paradox of freedom; with an unfettered opportunity to do something individual and special, we mostly do nothing of the sort.

Shemini Atzeret is the festival of paradox.

In years such as this, where it falls on Shabbat, it is our minhag to read the Book of Kohelet in the morning. (Kohelet would normally be read on Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Succot).

Though rich in famous quotations, the inspiration for songs, the Talmud records a rabbinic debate suggesting that the book be excluded from the canon of Tanach.

It is full of contradictions. One verse seemingly endorses anger or joy, feasting or the pursuit of wisdom; another seemingly decries these as vanities or futilities.

According to tradition, Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) was written by the young and passionate King Solomon, Mishlei (Proverbs) by Solomon at the height of his wisdom and Kohelet in his cynical and jaded dotage.

While scriptural cynics suggest the contradictions demonstrate it is the work of several authors; others see in it a maturity of exploring our world through different perspectives.

King Solomon is cautioning us against brooding within our bubble, isolating within our silo, seeing our world only through self-selected social media sources.

Solomon’s final determination, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” enjoins us not to be paralysed by choice.

Wisdom is considering reasonable options and then choosing the right course.
My grandmother’s cousin was the poet Mascha Kaleko (1907-75). Mascha only lived in Germany from 1918-38.

She was raised in Poland. From 1938, she lived mostly in America, and for a short time in Israel. She wrote in German.

Mascha’s life and her literature are Kohelet-rich in paradox. One famous reflection was “No matter where I travel, I come to Nowhereland”.

When Mascha Kaleko was awarded the prestigious Fontane Prize for German literature (1956), she turned it down because the Nazi and former Waffen-SS essayist Hans Egon Holthusen was one of the judges.

A poem of hers, written in the early 60s, is called Mein Epitaph: My Epitaph.

Mein Epitaph:
Sie starb
an den Folgen
des Lebens

My Epitaph:
In vain.
She died
as a result
of life’s pain.

The grim thought suggests that our passing only augments the futility of our living.

Jean-Paul Sartre made a similar point. He saw death as removing all meaningful life.

“If we must die,” he wrote, “then life has no meaning because its problems receive no solution, and because the very meaning of the problems remains un-determined.”

It is here that Kohelet and his commentaries strike their point home.
Rashi observes that when Kohelet writes, “it is better to go to a house of mourning, than one of feasting,” it is because when we mourn and offer comfort, we also reflect on our own mortality.

This is humbling and should make us consider the enduring values for which we will be remembered.

The Yizkor of Shemini Atzeret draws a smaller attendance than the one on Yom Kippur. In Yizkor, in our remembering the passing of our loved ones, we give meaning to their lives.

We give significance to their achievements and perpetuate the celebration of their deeds. If we were immortal, then there would always be the chance to upturn good or to make good on bad. Consequences would be short-lived and less consequential.

It is, ironically, the fact of death and the way we approach it — as we face mortality through the prism of remembrance — that we give life meaning. The transience of others’ lives gives urgency to our own.

Simchat Torah celebrates closing doors and starting afresh with exuberance.
Kohelet and Shemini Atzeret invite us to think about the transitions.

Given a space after the door that is closing, how best to choose which door ahead?

Kohelet advises, we should not become paralysed by a plethora of competing voices – but must move on.

Nor should we be stymied by too much freedom. Shemini Atzeret is not a day with no agenda — the agenda is to be decisive, take initiative and make meaning.

Embracing voices of wisdom and hope, we can escape from Nowhereland.

Jeremy Lawrence is an Orthodox rabbi and educator

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