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A Bit of the Somber Thrust After All the Joy

October 12, 2005 By:
Rabbi Lisa Malik
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SUKKOT, Exodus 33:12-34:26; Numbers 29:23-31

Ba-yom ha-shemini atzeret tihyeh lachem - "On the eighth day, you shall have an atzeret."

The word atzeret is derived from the Hebrew verb that means "to restrain," "to be confined," "to hold back." It may refer to an occasion in which people are assembled or confined in one place. It may also mean that which is held back for the purpose of being brought to a state of completion.

One rabbinic text considers the term atzeret to refer to God's holding back and restraining the Israelites from leaving God's presence. God enjoys us so much during all of the holidays in the month of Tishrei, God asks us to stay an extra day.

Another understanding of the name of the holiday, Shemini Atzeret, is the eighth day - "The Day of Self-Restraint."

Perhaps God wants us to restrain ourselves because we've "let loose" for the previous seven days. After all, the holiday of Sukkot is known for its expressions of unbridled joy. With full hearts, we rigorously shake our lulavs and sing the unabbreviated Hallel.

Perhaps after these seven joyous days, it's time for an eighth day of atzeret. On this day, we discontinue our use of symbolic ritual items. Our willows have been beaten to smithereens, our etrogs have been set aside, and we no longer need to eat in the sukkah. On Shemini Atzeret, we exercise full self-restraint.

A Bittersweet Nature

Or do we?

Sure, the holiday is stripped of many ritual symbols, but look at the fullness of the Shemini Atzeret prayer service. Is Shemini Atzeret a day of fullness, or is it a day of restraint?

Actually, it's both. The mood is bittersweet. While the Hallel we sing on this holiday expresses joy, it is a tempered joy. We also recite the more somber prayers, Yizkor and Geshem - the memorial service for the dead and the prayer for rain.

Jewish tradition is known for its bittersweet nature, for the mingling of the opposite moods of seriousness and joy. In the Talmud, the story is told about Rav Ashi, who makes a marriage feast for his son and smashes an expensive piece of glassware when he sees that the his guests are growing too merry. Rav Ashi smashes the glass to inject some seriousness into an event that he perceives as overly joyous.

His gesture, which has been incorporated into Jewish weddings as the smashing of the glass under the chupah, illustrates the meaning of the verse from Psalms, gilu bi'r'adah ("rejoice with trembling"). Even in times of our greatest rejoicing, we need to temper that joy.

But in our tradition, the converse is true as well.

Even in times of our greatest distress, we are encouraged to be happy and hopeful. Even in times of trembling, we need to try to fill our hearts with some joy.

As Jews, we are constantly called upon to mix rejoicing with trembling. This is the essence of Shemini Atzeret. Like the smashed glass at a wedding, Shemini Atzeret is a reminder that in times of trembling, we must inject a bit of joy; in times of rejoicing, we must tremble a bit.

After rejoicing for the seven days of Sukkot, we attempt to get serious on the eighth. But only somewhat serious. And then, we let all of our joyous impulses emerge in full force on Simchat Torah.

As we observe these Tishrei holidays, may we all embrace the mingling of opposites in our tradition and in our lives.

Rabbi Lisa Malik is the religious leader of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron.

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