Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Sefer Devarim
By rabbinic mandate, the section of Parshat Re’eh detailing the agricultural and festival cycle of the Jewish year1 is among the Torah passages read in synagogue on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Shmini Atzeret (the independent holy day attached as an eighth day to the Succot festival).
While the rabbinic decision to read this section of text on the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot is readily understandable, one fact makes the mandate to read this passage on Shmini Atzeret abundantly strange: the Torah reading chosen by the rabbis for public reading on Shmini Atzeret makes no direct mention of Shmini Atzeret at all.
Why would the rabbis deliberately choose to read on a specific holiday a section of biblical text that excludes any direct reference to that holiday?
To make matters even more troubling, the omission seems to be deliberate. Although this section of Parshat Re’eh clearly references the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals), including the holiday of Succot, it is described as a seven-day festival, with no clear allusion to an eighth day. This, in spite of the fact that Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day, is directly referenced in other biblical passages discussing the Succot festival.
The question is, of course, even more basic. In its review of the holiday cycle in Parshat Re’eh, why does the Torah fail to mention the festival of Shmini Atzeret? Why omit this significant festival from the list of pilgrimage festivals?
For me, this issue is informed by a powerfully painful personal experience that recently touched my life. As mentioned in the introduction to our volume on Bamidbar, my mother passed away a little over two years ago. Our family lost a warm, loving, wise and courageous matriarch and life teacher whom we all miss deeply.
At the age of seventy-nine, a few years after my beloved father’s passing, my mother made aliya to Jerusalem, Israel, where she lived for ten wonderful years. Her funeral, therefore, was conducted in that holy city. Having experienced funerals in Israel before, albeit not so personally, I was prepared to encounter ceremonies vastly different in feel from those to which I had become accustomed in America. In Israel, the entire experience surrounding death is simpler, more austere and, I believe, healthier, than it is elsewhere. In Israel, there is no cushion created by pomp and circumstance. The emotional distance between the living and the stark reality of their loss is almost nonexistent.
One ritual during the proceedings, however, took me completely by surprise. As we left the modest chapel on the cemetery grounds where the eulogies were delivered, our journey to the grave was abruptly interrupted by a member of the chevra kadisha (literally “holy society”), the group of volunteers tasked with the burial arrangements. Without a word of explanation this stranger blocked my path, hurling a piece of pottery to the ground, shattering it into shards. I was stunned and bewildered by this dramatic yet puzzling act, and a sobering phrase from the High Holy Day liturgy came unbidden to my mind: mashul k’cheres hanishbar, “[man is] likened to shattered pottery…” Clearly, I reflexively reasoned, this graphic, destructive ritual was designed to underscore the finality of my mother’s passing from this world; the totality of her absence from our lives.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself returning over and over again to that moment in my mind, reassessing my initial reactions.
Is this what we really believe? Is an individual’s physical departure from this world truly “total” and “final,” or is the transition at the moment of death actually more nuanced? Death is a shift, after all, not from presence to absence, but, rather to a unique state that can only be called “absent presence.”
As anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can testify, a person may be physically absent, yet remain present in the most powerful ways.
One could actually argue that the most important chapter of my mother’s life in this world began when she “passed away.” At that moment the true test began. What of my mother’s life remains behind? How has the world changed because she was here? What lasting legacy did she leave in the hearts and minds of the many whose lives she touched?
As Jews, we believe in “life after death,” a spiritual afterlife in a world that we can scarcely begin to comprehend. We also recognize as equally important, however, the continued absent presence of an individual in this world – a world forever changed because of the life that person lived. The pottery may be shattered, but its imprint remains.
None of this, of course, was totally new to me. As a rabbi, I had shared similar ideas with countless families, counseling them at times of loss. Never, however, had the formulation been sharper in my mind. My thoughts inexorably led me towards another conclusion that, at least for me, broke new ground: while the transition to absent presence is clearest at the time of death, we actually deal with the phenomenon of absent presence throughout our lives.
In the arena of childrearing, for example, we train our children primarily towards the moments when we are absent. We hope that the morals, ethics, principles and values that we instill in and model for our children will be present in their lives even when we are not. Thus the parents of young children ask, “How did our children behave at someone else’s house?” The parents of older children worry, “Will our children maintain their commitment to Jewish observance on the college campus and beyond?” And the parents of young adults wonder, “Who will our children choose as life partners? What will their homes be like? Will those homes mirror the ideals that we hold dear?”
School, as well, is designed to teach our children to deal with the world outside the classroom, when teachers are not present to guide them. Friendships and marriages are tested by the loyalty and fidelity we show when our partners are not present. Even our relationship with God is often defined by our struggle to discern His presence in a world where His absence often feels pronounced.
Every sphere of our lives is marked by the challenge of making our presence felt in the lives of others even when we are physically absent. Death thus becomes another step in a natural process, the ultimate iteration of a test that we have faced over and over again, throughout our lives.
We can now return to our original questions concerning the omission of Shmini Atzeret from the passage outlining the holidays in Parshat Re’eh.
Shmini Atzeret is the most “absent” festival of the year, a holiday that in many ways is simply “not here.” The very character of the day remains unclear, the nature of the celebration elusive. Attached as an eighth day to the Succot festival, it is, nonetheless, a “festival unto itself,” independent of Succot. Alone in the Shalosh Regalim cycle, this festival commemorates no historical or agricultural event. Rabbinic sources define the festival only in general terms, as marking the relationship between God and His people. Shmini Atzeret is absent not only from the Torah reading of the day. Instead, the day seems to be strangely “absent” in character and focus as well.
Yet perhaps that is the point. Shmini Atzeret marks not only the culmination of the Shalosh Regalim cycle, but the culmination of the High Holy Day period at the beginning of the Jewish year, as well. In that position, as the year begins, Shmini Atzeret serves as a day of transition to a state of absent presence in our relationship with God.
Each year, with the passage of Shmini Atzeret, the majestic observances associated with the holiday season come to a close and the true test begins. Will the year to come be shaped by the introductory experience of the High Holy Days and Succot? Will the lessons learned during our encounter with the Divine remain with us even when God’s presence is not so keenly felt? Will the resolutions and commitments that we have made while in the rarefied atmosphere of the festivals take hold once we enter the everyday world? Will God be present in our lives even when we must work to seek Him out?
Shmini Atzeret moves us along, preparing us for the challenges ahead – a final holiday, perpetuating our relationship with God. Remain with Me one more day, the rabbis picture God telling His children, your parting from Me is too difficult to bear.8 As God and His people start to pull away from each other, only this day remains – one last day in each other’s presence, a celebration of the relationship itself.
Yet even now, on this final holy day, subtle changes begin to emerge, as God moves a small step away and becomes a bit more “inaccessible” to us. With no special rituals to guide us, no unique holiday traditions to illuminate our path, Shmini Atzeret – the very celebration of our bond with the Divine – forces us to find our own way, to define our own relationship with God. And if we make use of this last day of yom tov in this way, we will be better able to extend that relationship to the times of God’s absent presence throughout the year, when God’s apparent distance will challenge us to find His continuing presence in our lives.