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I Have Laboured And Found

10/06/2015 10:34:09 PM


Shmini Atzeret is a tricky day. Technically speaking there are no more mitzvot left. No more lulav and etrog and no more sukkah. We only sit in the sukkah because we live outside the land of Israel. As far as the Torah is concerned, sukkot is over.

So what is Shmini Atzeret. What are we doing here?

Let’s start with a verse in the Torah commanding the celebration of Shmini Atzeret.

לה  בַּיּוֹם, הַשְּׁמִינִי--עֲצֶרֶת, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם:  כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ.

35 On the eighth day ye shall have a solemn assembly: ye shall do no manner of servile work;

 וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ, לַיהוָה--פַּר אֶחָד, אַיִל אֶחָד; כְּבָשִׂים בְּנֵי-שָׁנָה שִׁבְעָה, תְּמִימִם.

36 but ye shall present a burnt-offering, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD: one bullock, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish;


ולשון חבה הוא זה, כבנים הנפטרים מאביהם והוא אומר להם קשה עלי פרידתכם עכבו עוד יום אחד.

It expresses [His] affection [for Israel]. It is like children taking leave of their father, who says to them, “It is difficult for me to part with you; stay one more day.”

There is more than one way to understand what exactly it is that God is concerned with here. I would like to consider the most well known approach - God is concerned that we are leaving Him - that we will end the holiday and maybe forget about him.

To combat that, God asks us to stay with him one more day. However, this day is not just an add on, it is a different type of day. As I noted, there are no specific mitzvot of the day - in a sense it is just us and God.

One can even suggest that the previous seven days were celebrated just to get us to this point. It’s like a marriage, at first there is the wedding and the celebrations and all of the hoopla, but eventually the couple has to just love each other - absent the fanfare and the celebrations.

Of course, there are moments sprinkled in to life that reignite passion and love, but those, perhaps, are there, to cement simple uncomplicated commitment.

Sukkot, then, with all of the pomp and circumstance of the sukkah and the Lulav and Etrog is meant to get our relationship with God started, to ignite the passion. Once we are there, Shmini Atzeret reminds us of the need of ongoing commitment based on a decision to stay with God.

Decision is the key.

I recently had a conversation with someone about faith. The person told me that they essentially lost their connection to ritual and prayer. What struck me was the ease in which the person was willing to give up an engagement with a faith tradition that has sustained millions of people for thousands of years. A decision was made not to try.

Does this person study the siddur in English with a commentary? If that did not capture their attention, did they dive into the Talmud to gain an understanding of the worldview of the Rabbis and if they did and that did not work, did they thrust themselves into the study of TaNaCH to appreciate the myriad ways God’s words can be understood and applied to life? What about chassidut, Rambam's rationalism or the study of Kabbalah?

The answer to these questions is no. This person was treading water in the shallow section of Judaism. Of course that is going to be an unsatisfying experience.

When talking to others about this challenge or when thinking about my own, I always ask the question - “who moved”? Who created the distance between us and God?

In answering this question from the perspective of the bible, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes the following: “Man was the first to hide himself from God, after having eaten of the forbidden fruit. The will of God is to be here, manifest and near; but when the doors of the world are slammed on Him, His truth betrayed, His will defied, He withdraws, leaving man to himself. God did not depart of his own volition; He was expelled. God is in exile. (Man Is Not Alone, p. 153)

The real God is not the hiding God, but the discovered God. Humanity has worked itself into a terrible problem. The challenge for humanity is how to reintroduce God to the world.

The solution is radical and it is expressed by a bold and daring midrash.

“God who created the world is not at home in the world…. Of Noah it is said, Noah walked with God, and to Abraham the Lord said Walk before Me. Said the midrash: Noah might be compared to a king’s friend who was plunging about in the dark alleys, and when the king looked out and saw him, he said to him, Instead of plunging about in dark alleys, come and walk with me. But Abraham’s case is rather to be compared to that of a king who was sinking in dark alleys, and when his friend saw him he shone a light from him through the window. Said he to him, Instead of lighting me through the window, come and show a light before me.” (God in Search of Man, p.156)

This is a very provocative idea. God’s place in the world depends on humanity—not God. God is lost in His own world and we have to help Him find His way.

Our question is how do we help God find His way back into our lives. The good news is that we are not the first to grapple with this question.

In a pithy remark, the Rabbis of the Talmud sum up an approach (Massechet Megillah)

אם יאמר לך אדם יגעתי ולא מצאתי – אל תאמין, לא יגעתי ומצאתי – אל תאמין, יגעתי ומצאתי – תאמין

R. Isaac also said: If a man says to you, I have laboured and not found, do not believe him. If he says, I have not laboured but still have found, do not believe him. If he says,I have laboured and found, you may believe him.

If one labors, there will be results. It is as simply ands as difficult as that. It take labor.

Take prayer for example.

When it comes to prayer, we should view each prayer experience as a layer in your prayer career. Insights gained at one time lead to and add to the next prayer experience. As such, prayer gets better, more focused and richer the more we do it.

In this way, prayer is like many other aspects of life. Human relationships (marriage, friendships, family) grow and flourish from one experience to the next.  Viewing the events of our lives as disconnected incidents robs us of the ability to grow from the wisdom of accumulation.

To take advantage of this reality, we need to pray with consistency.

Inconsistent praying simply does afford the same cumulative experience and leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, tightly connected prayer opportunities can lead to an overall feeling of satisfaction and meaning in prayer.

Of course, the same is true for Torah study. Those who came regulars on shabbat for the last two years, gained a sense of how the Rabbis in the Talmud think about ethics and how one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century interpreted Rabbinic literature. Neither of these are small accomplishments.

If you came to lunch and learn over the last few year to came to an understanding  of the book of Daniel and the career and Eliyahu HaNavi.

The same accumulation happens when attending Gideons Millers and David Silberman’s Gemara classes.

This is what Shmini Atzeret is all about. There are no gimmicks, no tricks, no sukkah, no lulav and etrog.

There are certain things we do, certain mitzvot, that offer direct relationships with God in a way other mitzvot do not - speaking to Him (prayer) and studying His words to us (Talmud Torah). If we are to feel His presence we cannot experience that presence fully and robustly without prayer and Torah study.

I think of Shmini Atzeret as preparation for spiritual hibernation.

We are about the enter the longest stretch without a Moed - without a Torah mandated celebration.

After Pesach, there is just a seven week break until the next holiday - shavuot. in fact, we spend the time between Pesach and Shavuot counting down the days until we get there. And even once shavuot is done, within 3- 4 months we will be right back here again celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and sukkot. But, after sukkot, we have a full six months until we can once again join together in celebration.

What we will have in that six month period is the challenge of finding God in the absence of Yom Tov, and the hype and celebration.

Shmini Atzeret is the day on which we mark this new reality and ready ourselves for the long spiritual winter ahead.

Will we be successful? Will we be able to feel the warmth of God’s presence in the winter of our religious lives? Will we be able to acknowledge the importance of faith in our lives when we are not surrounded by it like the walls of a sukkah?

The answer depends on decisions we make.

If we banish God from our lives, then our religious selves will freeze to death.

But, if we decide to to participate regularly - to labor in the fields of prayer and Jewish learning, then we will find ourselves comforted by the presence of God we create in our lives.

I will close with a story.

It takes place in the 19th century and is about a poor Jewish baker named Yosef, who lives in a small town near Prague. After living in poverty his whole life, on his 40th birthday he has a dream about going to the city and finding a treasure under the palace bridge. After the third time he has the same dream, Yosef sets out for Prague. When he gets to the bridge, he sees that it is guarded all day and all night, but he still goes to the bridge every day for a week and walks around it, watching and fretting.

When a week has passed, the captain of the guards comes over to ask what Yosef is doing. When Yosef tells him of his dream about the treasure under the bridge, the guard laughs, puts his hand on his shoulder, and says, “If I listened to crazy dreams like that I’d go to a small village and look behind the oven of a Jewish baker named Yosef to find a secret treasure.”

Right away Yosef realizes that the guard is talking about him and  his home and so he quickly journeys home. Sure enough when he gets back, he digs under his oven and finds the treasure.

We go to great distances on the high Holidays and Sukkot to be in touch with God, only to realize that to find that great treasure all we need to see is what is right before our eyes - Prayer and Torah study.

Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780