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…”
Rashi, Leviticus 23:36
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. 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,” 1 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. 2
Sukkot, more than any other festival, emphasizes the unity between Jew and Jew achieved through the Jew’s relationship 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 by integrating the wisdom of G-d into their minds and lives; 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 two Jews 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 bring to the deed.
The sukkah, however, is the ultimate equalizer. This mitzvah is observed by dwelling in a bough-covered 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 thinking the same thought are nevertheless thinking differently; the same is true of two people experiencing the same feeling or doing the same deed. But two people inhabiting a particular place are utterly synonymous in the fact of their presence: neither can be more or less or differently there (in the empirical, physical sense) than the other. 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.” 3,” in the singular. Explains the Talmud: the Torah wishes to imply that “the entire nation of Israel may 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” (dirat arai). 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, a primary element in his relationship with G-d; 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—a day on which dwelling in the sukkah is no longer a mitzvah but on which the unity of Sukkot suffuses us nonetheless. A day on which we are utterly and unequivocally one without the paraphernalia of oneness, without the need for an actual edifice to context our unity. 4
He retains us for a day of “retainment”—a day on which it is not we who are in the sukkah but the sukkah that is within us. A day on which we are empowered to imbibe and internalize the unity of Sukkot, to store it in the pith of our souls so that we may draw on it in sukkah-less months to come.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Simchat Torah of 5716 (1955) and on other occasions 5