Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret: A Global Perspective
Autumn 1909, one century ago, was a rather uneventful time. Compared to traumatic events that took place during the previous High Holiday seasons, and the horrible atrocities that would soon be unleashed, Tishrei 5670 (September-October 1909) was relatively quiet.
As it turns out, that fall was a deceptive lull in the early years of the 20th Century. Beneath the surface and behind the scenes, violent forces were simmering which would soon erupt and throw the benign century into bloodiest century in all of history.
Despite the apparent calm that holiday season, the illustrious Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber), a grandmaster sage and mystic, was not oblivious to the impending storm. In his classic style, the Rebbe delivered another of his timeless and timely masterpieces, which presented a cosmic snapshot of events to come, coupled with a profound perspective on how to approach and take on the challenges ahead.
That Rosh Hashana, one hundred years ago, the Rebbe Rashab began delivering the series of discourses, titled “Hemshech Eter” (eter is an acronym for the year 5670, tov resh ayin). The series would span for nearly six months, until the winter of 1910, and would consist of twenty-seven discourses, delivered both live (in Yiddish) and in writing (in Hebrew), and later published in a complete volume.
Couched in Talmudic language and mystical terms, the Rebbe laid out in the first part of this series of discourses two critical elements that allow us to understand and prepare for every situation, even the most difficult of circumstances.
We will focus on the discourse delivered exactly one century this week, on Shemini Atzeret 1909 (the sixth discourse in this series). In this dissertation the Rebbe Rashab explains the difference between the two holidays that flow one into the other, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The Torah instructs us that following the celebration of the seven days of Sukkot, “the eighth day shall be a time of retreat (Shemini Atzeret) for you when you shall do no mundane work.”
What is the significance of this eighth day? And why does it follow the seven days of Sukkot?
Explains the Rebbe Rashab that the secret power of the eighth day lays in the expression “(the eighth day shall be a time of retreat) for you.”
We each have two aspects to our lives: Our outer lives and our inner lives. The things we do to affect the environment and the world around us. And the things we do within our own intimate selves.
The two consecutive holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, explains the Rebbe, represent two primary prototypes of human initiative that each one of us has to be involved in – the first external and the second internal.
The purpose for which we were placed on Earth, why our souls were sent down to this material plane, is in order that we illuminate the moral and spiritual darkness of our physical world. This is the primary focus of Sukkot, when we take on not just our own personal lives, but also the welfare of our communities and societies. We dwell in Sukkot, made of vegetation of the world, we pray and commit to improve and refine the nations of the world, we dance and celebrate in public, we engage, connect and unite with others.
Following this seven-day immersion in the affairs of e the world, we then arrive to the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, when we enter into our intimate space, “a time of retreat for you,” when we are alone with G-d, “let them be for you alone, and no strangers with you” (Proverbs 5:17), and we are not involved in any “mundane work” of refining the world.
After refining the entire world during Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret is the single day when everything else is put aside and we are alone and intimate with the King, without any strangers present, for one last time before entering the dark, cold days of winter.
In mystical terms: Sukkot is related to the role of the “reshimu” – the cosmic residue that was created by the great “tzimtzum,” which concealed the infinite Divine energy to allow the emergence of finite “containers” that would be able to receive this energy. Think of it as letters and words that convey profound wisdom, whose intensity completely overrides and submerges the actual letters in a powerful light, which don’t allow the letters visibility. The tzimtzum conceals the brilliant wisdom, leaving a “residue” – a jumbled up assortment of letters (which are alternately compared to a summary, a blueprint, signs and hints to something deeper), which now can emerge and be revealed, but only due to the concealment of the intense brilliance. Like letters that remain visible after the light recedes, the “reshimu” is considered to be the first “container” – the root of all the “containers” in existence, which now have to begin the long and arduous process of reclaiming the hidden wisdom hidden within these residual “letters” and “containers.”
On Sukkot the main focus is to enter the world of the “containers,” in all their dimensions, from the subtlest to the most callous, to refine and illuminate them with Divine energy. After seven days we then retreat into – and retain (“atzeret”) – the inner sanctums and chambers of the infinite energy and essential light that is above and beyond the “reshimu” and the tzimtzum – a day that is dedicated “for you” alone.
Though it would not mitigate the tzimtzum-induced horrible events to come in the first half of the 20th century, it is a bit empowering to know that we have the ability to not only not be destroyed by the darkness, but to actually illuminate it.
The Rebbe’s elucidation of the tzimtzum could help people, at least cognitively and emotionally, face the gloom to come, knowing that no darkness can vanquish the spirit. In the Rebbe Rashab’s own words (in the previous Sukkot discourse): “We cannot say that the objective of the tzimtzum is to eradicate the light, G-d forbid, because what purpose is served by the removal of light, and we are told that the world was ‘not created to be empty and chaotic but to be inhabited’ (Isaiah 45:18)… the purpose of the concealment is that the light should then be drawn into the finite parameters of our universe, and this happens when the light is filtered through the reshimu, which carries the infinite into the finite…”
As the clouds of doom were gathering over the European horizons, one can only imagine the strength and courage imparted to all those who heard the Rebbe Rashab explaining the potency of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret back in that autumn of 2009. No words can describe or minimize the harshness of the 20th century. But as challenging as those harsh times were, the Rebbe Rashab’s words must have gathered much confidence and power knowing that these holidays infuse us with both the ability to transcend all the world’s troubles, to enter an “inner” sanctum reserved “for you” alone, as well as to illuminate the dark universe.
In our time as well, though we are blessed to face far smaller challenges, we too have much to learn from Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Whether we are concerned with our uncertain economy and our future security, whether we are frightened by others fears and unknowns, whether we are anxious about our relationships and other personal ghosts, come Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and we are told that these days bring us an unprecedented gift from above. They enable us to realize that we are not victims of circumstances; we can and must illuminate the shadows around us. And they allow us to access an inner place (which is dedicated “for you” alone) that can never be affected by the storms raging around us.
To take control of your life requires discerning a clear distinction between both parts of our beings. First, the message of Sukkot: we must know that we were sent to this world, each of us charged with the mission to illuminate our surroundings. Darkness exists for a reason – so that you can dispel it with your unique light and energy. Second, the message of Shemini Atzeret: There is a place reserved for “you alone.” In the depths of your soul resides a private, intimate essence, where no intruder – physical, psychological or spiritual – can enter. This is your inner sanctum where you and only you and G-d reside. Nothing can wound or even touch that connection.
A practical way to actualize these resources is to dedicate time, as the holidays wind down and we enter the new year, to focus on these two dimensions of your life. Identify elements that reflect each one of the two, don’t allow their boundaries to be blurred and spill into each other – know clearly when you are focusing on improving the people and the world around you and when you are entering into your intimate space. And above all, designate time to nourish both these responsibilities.
Some food for thought as we reflect on a century old discourse, that comes with warmest regards from the Rebbe Rashab. As we conclude Sukkot (this Friday) and celebrate Shemini Atzeret (this Saturday), we can glean much from these Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret thoughts.
And then – with this intimate and invincible power of Shemini Atzeret – “for you” alone – we have much reason to dance all night and day on Simchat Torah.