בַּיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י עֲצֶ֖רֶת תִּֽהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַֽעֲשֽׂוּ:
And on the 8th Day you shall have an Atzeret and do no labouring work. (Numbers 29.35)
The passage from Parshat Pinchas which we read as a maftir during Sukkot describes the 8th day of Sukkot as an Atzeret, without really explaining what that is. Amongst his three proposals, Rashi’s final explanation, derived from the Midrash Sifrei Bamidbar, is his most beautiful: the 70 bulls offered during the festival of Sukkot represent the 70 nations of the world, as Sukkot celebrates God’s relationship to all creation. The 8th is a day in which only the Jews are requested to remain in Jerusalem as if God is saying: ‘Please, just make a small final banquet for Me, so that I may celebrate just with you.’
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in his commentary HaKtav v’HaKabbalah, expands this idea. Humans have ‘a very powerful desire for worldly goods, and expend great effort labouring for them.’ But the more time we invest in gathering riches, the less time we have to work on ourselves and our spiritual lives. One of the main points of the Torah, for Mecklenburg, is to give us days and times when we are prohibited from worrying about things which are only things, and can come closer to things which have deeper and more lasting value. This is why the rare word Atzeret is applied in Torah to the last day of Pesach, the last day/day after of Sukkot, and the festival of Shavuot (after 40 days of Omer counting). Atzeret indicates that after a festival, or a period of significant time, when we have strived to be closer to Judaism and our community – rather than rush straight back off to the world of trade and phones and hurry and chaos, we should pause, take a breath, and hold ourselves in the special atmosphere of the Jewish festivals. Judaism gives us moments of calm, and encourages us not to run away from them, but rather to cherish them whilst they are here and hold the memory with us when they are gone.
This weekend we will all celebrate Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah – the Liberal and Reform synagogues over a single day; and the Masorti over two. Please do join on Friday night with Mosaic Reform (6pm) and/or Mosaic Liberal (7pm), on Saturday morning at our usual times, on Saturday night with Mosaic Masorti at 6.45pm and on Sunday morning with Mosaic Masorti at 9.45am. Really, you might as well just stay at the synagogue for the duration… Wishing you well over these final Yamim Tovim, and a happy return to normality thereafter.