Sacred Moments and Sacred Spaces
Shemini Atzeret has never opened a bulletin article of mine...until now! Like a neglected middle child, it is over-shadowed by the High Holy Days and Sukkot. But that streak ends now.
The Torah informs us that we are supposed to enjoy an eighth day after the seven days of Sukkot and not work, but unlike the final day of Pesah, we are told that this is to be considered a separate holiday. We do not need to dwell in the Sukkah, nor do we continue to take up the lulav and etrog (the four species: palm, myrtle, willow branches, and the citron fruit) as we do during the previous week.
It is a holiday without special rituals.
Once we arrive at Shemini Atzeret, we have completed three full weeks of festivals and then it appears—another holiday without any specific rituals. We can understand why it has been overlooked.
Over the course of the generations, Yizkor was added to its observance and its second day (outside the land of Israel) became Simhat Torah—the day we celebrate the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah reading.
The rabbis explained Shemini Atzeret in the Midrash by way of a story. A king had a daughter and invited all the surrounding kingdoms to her wedding. For seven days, everyone celebrated with food, dancing, and wine. It was quite a week. Then the guests started to leave and the King wished them all well, but he turned to his daughter and son-in-law and asked them to stay one more day: One more day just for the family to be together in the royal castle without every-one else.
That is Shemini Atzeret, a final day for us to be together. In this parable, God is the King and the Jewish people are the King’s daughter who has celebrated for a week during the seven days of Sukkot; the rabbis imagined Sukkot as a universal holiday since 70 sacrifices are offered over the week and there were 70 nations in the ancient world. Thus, Sukkot became a holiday where all the nations of the world could come together in peace. That universal thrust is vital to our philosophy of inclusion and welcoming.
But the Jewish people are invited for one more day—a day for family without the rituals or rites of a wedding or Sukkot. It is a day to experience the power of simply being together in God’s castle.
As I compose these words, we have just completed this season of holidays. We have experienced the intensity of Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe, the fun of Sukkot, the simplicity of Shemini Atzeret, and joy of Simhat Torah. We have experienced sacred time.
But, of course, our tradition appreciates space, as well as time. While our tradition offers us tools to transform time, it also understood the power of holy places. Jacob constructed a sacred pillar; the Israelites built the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, in the wilderness; and King Solomon created the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
And the generations of our community have built Temple Emunah. We are blessed to have a physical place that affords us the opportunity to hold numerous sacred celebrations. We have sanctuaries and chapels, meeting rooms and classrooms—for our community, this is God’s castle. Our building is what allows us to create these moments of holi-ness.
Led by Susan Rubenstein, to whom we owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude, we have worked to repair and renew many areas of our synagogue. Since drainage issues existed behind our building, we approached that problem as an opportunity, not only to prevent damage to our structure, but also to create a new space.
Our new courtyard has already enriched our community at our BBQ & Barekhu, Friday night services held outside, meditation moments, and Religious School classes; and has served as the foundation for the Brotherhood-built Garber Sukkah.
We thank those who led the project: Susan Rubenstein, Joelle Gunther, Art Krieger, Ruth Super, and their entire committee, as well as everyone who contributed to the Campaign for a Stronger and Sustainable Emunah that provided the funding. The Landscape Committee is thanked for beautifying this renewed area and many others. To the Diamants we attribute the revitalization of the plantings at the base of the shul under the windows of the Rabbinic Suite and Archive, and along the edge of the new courtyard.
Many members and visitors have commented on how lovely our new courtyard is, and we pray that it serves as a new spiritual site for many years to come. All-year-round furniture and lighting now enhance the space, a water feature will soon be the center of a meditation circle, and additional plantings will beautify our courtyard even more.
We are grateful to all who have contributed as we look forward to dedicating these spaces. In addition, we hope to add art panels of the seven species of the land of Israel mentioned in the Torah. We invite those who would like to support these efforts and/or to dedicate these or other elements of the courtyard to be in touch with me or Danny Watt as we continue to sustain our community.
Whether it is on Shemini Atzeret or any other day of the year, may we all be blessed to share sacred moments together, coming together like a family—like the King and his daughter in our sacred spaces.
Rabbi David Lerner