Back to the Beginning

This evening is shmini atzeret. What is Shmini Atzeret? Eh… just come over. There will be wine and drinks and food, although nothing uniquely dedicated to this day, no matza, no apples in honey, no blintzes or latkes; there is no artifact, no symbolic ritualistic anything, no menorah, no special branches. Some of us sit in the sukkah, some don’t; some do so with a blessing, some do so without. In Israel, it coincides with Simchat Torah there is one extra prayer we add on this day, but neither were part of the original commandment. So what is Shmini Atzeret??
Oy, it’s such a Jewish day! When I think about it, it might be the most Jewish of them all. It’s that moment that we get up to leave after a wonderful visit, standing at the door almost longer than we were at the table and finally the hosts say, perhaps another cup of tea? And before we know it, we’re sitting down again.
Shmini Atzeret comes from 2 words: shmini – 8th and atzeret – a gathering, from the Hebrew “to stop”; in the Hebrew numbers, seven usually represents what’s good enough, what’s “just right”. Eight – shmone, which also relates to sha-men, fat, represent the little extra, the above and beyond. After this long holiday season, it’s one more day for us to “be together” – with ourselves, with each other and with G-d before rolling into the New Year.
With time, a special prayer has been added to this day – “mashiv haru’ach umorid hageshem”, a line that will be added to each amida we will say from now until Passover, declaring that G-d is the one who makes the wind blow and drops down rain. This line is added everywhere, even though for the Jewish communities in the Southern Hemisphere, spring is just starting. This is because we pray constantly for the wellbeing on Israel. But, of course, I’d like to see in it an extra meaning, for ru’ach also means breath and spirit and geshem shares its root with hagshama, hitgashmut – fulfillment, realization and even gashmiyut, materialism; mashiv – means to blow wind (from but with a slight change, it can be “meshiv” (from sh.v.b) which means to bring back, related to teshuva, repentance; morid (from y.r.d.) is to come down, or – cause to come down, but in its original Biblical expression (see Genesis 1:28) it shares a root with r.d.h, which means to rule). All this, is to share the grammatical justifications I have to read it as a prayer for the achieving – or better, working towards – the difficult balance between the spiritual and physical, between the tshuva of the ru’ach and the presence of the geshem in our lives.
Shmini Atzeret is also in Israel Simchat Torah (and here often the day after) – when we finish the cycle of reading the Torah and start a new one. Therefore, the Torah reading of this Shabbat is Beresheet, Genesis and “in the beginning”… Rashi, in his famous commentary on Genesis 1:1, questions why does the Torah begin here. After all, if the Torah is a law book, why not start with the first commandment given to us as a people (Genesis 12:1); if it’s a book about G-d, why not start like Maimonides starts his Mishneh Torah, describing G-d and His qualities.
It seems that the Torah purposefully directs us to what this book is really about from its first verse: This is not a book about G-d. And it’s not a book about man – or the world – either. Neither one will stands in the middle of the story. I will go as far as to say that neither one by him (her) lonely self matters here. What does though are the interactions, exchanges, debates, misgivings, happiness and hopes – in short, the relationships between them. This is what it’s still all about, our constant dialog with G-d through our daily interactions with everything around us.
Chag Same’ach & Shabbat Shalom.


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