As our important Jewish holidays come along we cannot help wondering about the significance of each in its turn. Although this is a regular expected reaction for Rabbis to have, it is certainly a good thing for all Jews to contemplate the meaning of our holidays. We should think about what are the underlying factors in all of our practices and traditions for each holiday. Today let us explore the meaning and significance of Shemini Atzeret and its rituals.
Let us look at five aspects of this Yom Tov:
On Shemini Atzeret we traditionally read Kohelet. One of the main themes of Kohelet is that the day-to-day cycle continues and will continue. Continuation it self is a major theme of our celebration. In Kohelet, reference is made to the cycle of day following night and night following day. This even recalls the beginning of "Bereishit", when G-d created the earth. He created day and night and arranged for each to last for a period of time and then to change to the other. In the text, each section of creation is followed by: "And it was evening… and it was morning." This very system of changing day to night to day etc. was also created by G-d. The message of Kohelet is that this day-night cycling will continue always. We are to understand that this is G-d’s will.
The importance of the concept of continuation is illustrated by a recent experience I had. Not long ago, I visited an unfortunate young man in a hospital. His situation would seem to be very sad and depressing. He was quite young and had a young wife pregnant with their first child. He had been struck suddenly with a very serious cancer for which there was no possibility of a cure. I expected to enter into a very depressing scene, To my amazement, I found this terminally ill man was lying in bed in utter tranquility and total calm. At first I thought maybe the medications had brought him to this state. But when we spoke he told me that his wife had promised him that she would name the new baby after him and that his name and memory would certainly continue. The satisfaction that he felt by knowing that he would in some way "continue" after his death enabled him to make his peace with the situation. I was thrilled to see that he was positively beaming with contentment. Here again is the same concept of continuation of the cycle as day follows night.
Another significant ritual of Shemini Atzeret is that directly after we say the Yizkor prayer we say the prayer for rain. We can visualize a farmer with his arms upraised to heaven praying for rain. G-d grants the rain and this leads to the abundance of the harvest and sustenance for the next year. This is another instance of the continuous cycling of our existence. Each year we pray for the rain, the rain comes, the earth is refreshed, and we are sustained for another year. And we believe that this is a continuous cycle that G-d will repeat for eternity.
Of course an important highlight of the Shemini Atzeret service is the YIZKOR service. We remember the souls of our departed relatives and friends and we pray for the souls and their perfect rest. This is not to be a sad time! We do not dwell upon the grief that someone is no longer with us but rather we think of the joy that resulted from the relationship while they were alive. We relive the pleasure of the time we spent with the departed while they were living. As with all cycles of life we are to continue with no agony and no grief. Death is the completion of a soul’s work on earth after which the soul is free in Gan Eden. Death is like the sunset, which always leads to the next sunrise. We remember the departed souls with the joy and happiness of their love. G-d does NOT want us to be sad. The departed souls do NOT want us to be sad.
One of the most important examples of the ‘sunrise/sunset’ cycle concept in Judaism is the reading of the Torah. We finish reading the Torah and then with great joy and celebration we begin reading it again. We celebrate the start of the new cycle with dancing, elation, delight and jubilation. As with all our cycles, we are happy for the continuation of the process and our existence.
So we see from all of this that the basic principle is Jews should understand that it is G-d’s will that all things must end and begin again. There is no reason for sadness and grief regarding any of the cyclic events in our world. I want to close by blessing the entire congregation and extending Miriam and my best wishes to all for a healthy, happy and joyous year.