Most of the names of our chagim are simple and straightforward: Rosh Hashanah is the Head of the Year, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, Pesach is when God passed over and spared us, Sukkot is when we sit in the Sukkah. But the festival that begins on Friday night is named Shemini Atzeret. What on earth does Shemini Atzeret mean? Literally, it means the “eighth stop.” Most English prayer books seem to translate it as “the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly.”
The Hebrew word atzor means “to restrain.” So, the name could also be understood as “the eighth day of holding back.”
But who is holding back what, and from whom?
The Talmud (Sukkah 55b) explains that, in the days of the Temple, over the seven days of Sukkot 70 oxen would be brought to the Temple Altar in the merit of the 70 nations of the world. The Beit Hamikdash, our Holy Temple, actually brought incredible blessings to all the nations. (How ironic that they should then destroy it.)
But after the week of Sukkot, God says to His children Israel, “Your parting is difficult for Me to bear. Please stay back one more day with Me alone, just the two of us.”
And so, on Shemini Atzeret, not 70 oxen but only one ox representing the Jewish people was offered for Am Yisrael alone.
The rabbis ask: Since it seems like the passage should have said “our parting,” why does it say “your parting?”
One powerful answer is that the passage refers not only to God and Israel parting after Yom Tov, but also to an internal problem within our people. “Your” parting can be understood to mean “your partings, separations and divisions among yourselves.”
Indeed, we often witness a distinct lack of unity among ourselves, the Jewish people. I’m not only referring to the current tensions in Israeli society.
Where I live in South Africa, we have a Yiddish term for the internal strife between individuals and families: faribel, which means a grudge. It is all too common.
In my decades of congregational life, I’m sad to say that I’ve seen it all—and not only between community members, but even within families.
Siblings often do not invite each other to their children’s simchas. On more than one occasion, I had to deal with two siblings from the same family who lost a parent and refused to sit Shiva together in the same house. There were two separate houses of mourning for the same person in the same neighborhood.
I’ve seen them arrange separate Unveilings too. In one shocking case, a daughter arranged the inscription on her mother’s tombstone and completely ignored the existence of her sister abroad. There were two daughters, but the inscription read, “deeply mourned by her daughter”—in the singular.
So, God says: your parting and strife among yourselves is difficult for me to watch.
Howard Schultz, the former chairman and CEO of Starbucks, tells the story of how a group of influential business leaders were in Israel and a visit was arranged for them with the aged rabbi Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel OBM, then the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir. The rabbi was old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. They had a total of five minutes with him.
Rav Finkel cut to the chase.
“What is the most important lesson of the Holocaust?” he asked them. He pointed to one of the businessmen: “What do you say?”
“Never forget!” was his response.
“No! And you?” he asked another.
Schultz says he felt like a fifth-grader in class and was trying to slide under the table to avoid being asked the question.
“You are all missing the point, so I will tell you the answer,” said the rabbi. “When the Jewish prisoners arrived in the concentration camps, one inmate was given a blanket. But it was meant to be shared by six people! And every night, in the freezing cold, the man with the blanket had to ask himself: Do I pull the blanket towards me to keep myself warm, or do I push the blanket to the other five inmates?”
“And that, my friends, was the defining moment of our human spirit,” the rabbi asserted. “Would we share the blanket? My dear men, take your blanket back to America, and push it to five others.”
When we share the blanket, we are together as one community and one nation. Then we never part from each other—or from God.