THERE WAS ONCE A KING WHO INVITED HIS CHILDREN FOR A BANQUET OF SEVERAL DAYS. WHEN IT CAME TIME FOR THEM TO GO, HE SAID TO THEM: “MY CHILDREN, PLEASE, STAY WITH ME ONE MORE DAY—YOUR PARTING IS DIFFICULT FOR ME…” WITH THIS PARABLE, OUR SAGES EXPLAIN THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SHEMINI ATZERET. SHEMINI ATZERET, LITERALLY “THE EIGHTH OF RETAINMENT,” IS THE ONE-DAY FESTIVAL THAT IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWS THE SEVEN-DAY FESTIVAL OF SUKKOT.
By Yanki Tauber Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe
Sukkot is a week-long reunion banquet that the supernal King throws for His children, the souls of Israel; for seven days we rejoice in our kinship with G-d and with each other. But then, when it comes time for us to take leave of the festival and return to our everyday pursuits, G-d requests: “Stay one more day,” hence, the festival of Shemini Atzeret, one more day of joy and fellowship in the divine palace before returning to the hinterland of material life.
But let us examine this parable more closely. At first glance, the king’s request seems little more than an indulgence of sentiment. If his children’s return to their lives apart from him is inevitable, what is gained by staying one more day? Other than delaying the pain of parting for several hours, is there anything of enduring significance in an eighth day of retainment?
In the parable, our sages do not have the king say, “our parting is difficult for me,” but “your parting is difficult for me.” Indeed, G-d, of whom “no place is void of Him,” never parts from us. It is we who might “part” from Him, moving on to a state of diminished awareness of our relationship with Him.
“Your parting” has yet another meaning: our parting from each other, which, in G-d’s eyes, is synonymous to our parting from Him. When the people of Israel are one with G-d, they are also one with each other, united as children of their royal father. The same applies in reverse: when the people of Israel are one with each other, united in their common identity as G-d’s children, they are one with G-d.
All mitzvot have this uniting effect, underscoring our common endeavor to fulfill the will of our Father in Heaven; but the mitzvah of sukkah is unique in the depth and scope of the unity it awakens amongst us.
When two Jews study a chapter of Torah, they strengthen their relationship with G-d and with each other; but their study also underscores the differences between them, as each understands and appreciates the divine wisdom in accordance with his distinct intellectual prowess and spiritual sensitivity. When they fulfill the divine command to give charity, the deed differentiates even as it unites, as each gives in accordance with his generosity and financial capacity. The same is true of virtually every other mitzvah: while a mitzvah unites diverse individuals in the common pursuit of serving the divine will, it also accentuates the diversity of talent, experience and commitment that each one brings to the deed.
The sukkah, however, is the ultimate equalizer.
The sukkah, however, is the ultimate equalizer. This mitzvah is observed by dwelling in a bough-roof hut for seven days—eating, sleeping, and socializing in it, and otherwise regarding it as one’s home, for the duration of the festival. In other words, the mitzvah of sukkah is not about what you do and how you do it, but where you do whatever it is that you do. Two people inhabiting a particular place are utterly synonymous in the fact of their presence: neither can be more or less or differently there than the other, in the empirical, physical sense. So the sukkah relates to all its inhabitants equally: it is the scholar’s home no more and no less than it is the simple laborer’s; the mystic and the businessman, the scientist and the artist, are housed by its walls without regard to the nature and content of their lives. In the words of the Talmud, “All of Israel might conceivably dwell in a single sukkah.”
THE EIGHTH OF RETAINMENT
But the sukkah is a once-a-year experience; indeed, the halachic definition of the sukkah is “a temporary dwelling”. After the seven-day unity fest is over, the Jew moves from the sukkah back to his home, back to a life in which his place of habitat is no longer a mitzvah, back to a life in which his oneness with his fellow Jews is expressed via the more “individualistic” mitzvot of thought, word and deed.
Yet our parting is distressful to G-d. So He retains us one day longer, for an “eighth day of retainment.”
He retains us for an “eighth day” of Sukkot. He retains us for a day of “retainment”—a day on which it is not we who are in the sukkah but the sukkah is within us. A day on which we are empowered to internalize the unity of Sukkot, to store it in the pith of our souls so that we may draw on it in the sukkah-less months to come.