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What Shemini Atzeret Teaches Us About Inclusiveness

What Shemini Atzeret Teaches Us About Inclusiveness

Shemini Atzeret

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Shemini Atzeret, the day after the seventh day of Sukkot (the 22nd of the month of Tishrei), is a mysterious Jewish holiday. In some respects, Shemini Atzeret is considered as part of Sukkot, but in other respects it is a distinct holiday unto itself. The enigmatic nature of the day is perhaps most overt in the way the Torah introduces it. After Sukkot, during which all nations, Jews and non-Jews, celebrated and brought sacrificial offerings to the Temple, G‑d makes a special request of the Jewish people (Leviticus 23:36):

“On the eighth day [from the start of Sukkot], it shall be an atzeret to you . . .”

The commentator Rashi elaborates that the term atzeret, literally “holding back,” is one of affection, as a father would say to his children who are departing him: “Your departure is difficult for me. Please stay with me for just one more day!” After all the other nations have gone home, G‑d asks the Jewish people to “hold back” for one more day of celebration—“Shemini Atzeret.”1

The Kabbalists have a different twist. In their signature fashion, they compare Shemini Atzeret to the intimacy of husband and wife in consummation of their wedding: the celebratory feast has come to an end, the guests and relatives have returned home, and the groom and bride—a mystical metaphor for G‑d and the Jewish people—are left to enjoy an intimate moment for the first time, together, alone.2 The mystics therefore considered Shemini Atzeret to be the crowning moment of the holiday-filled month of Tishrei, culminating the progression of holidays preceding it: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. On this most auspicious day of the Jewish calendar, they postured, one can experience the pinnacle of joy and closeness to G‑d.

Yet this bond not only ties us, the Jewish nation, to G‑d, but to one another as well. To better understand how this is so—how on Shemini Atzeret we experience Jewish unity in the most profound sense—we need to take a closer look at the journey up to Shemini Atzeret, the progression of holidays leading up to the holiday, beginning with Rosh Hashanah.

**

Every year immediately before Rosh Hashanah, we read the parshah of Nitzavim, in which Moses speaks to the Jewish people a few days before they will enter the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 29:9–10):

“You stand upright this day, all of you, before the L‑rd your G‑d: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers and all the men of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water . . .”

The Baal Shem Tov explains that the term hayom (“this day”) is a reference to Rosh Hashanah, the day on which every one of us stands together in judgment before G‑d. Lest someone mistakenly think they were excluded from the phrase “all of you,” Moses continues to list the many classes and types amongst the Jewish people—from the heads of the tribes to the small children to the wood-choppers and water-drawers—to emphasize that before G‑d, there exists no hierarchy; we are all equally important and equally irreplaceable in G‑d’s world. This fact is especially salient on Rosh Hashanah, as we stand together as a nation to crown G‑d as King of the universe. As the famed commentator Alshich explains3:

“That the leader or the sage is superior to the wood-hewer or the water-carrier is only from our earthbound perspective, which sees a ‘hierarchy’ of roles. But when ‘you all stand before G‑d,’ there is no higher and lower—what seems ‘low’ here is no less lofty and significant in G‑d’s eyes.”

Not only are we all equally important before G‑d, explained Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, we are all interdependent:

“Like the various organs and limbs of a body, each of which complements, serves and fulfills all the others, so too the Jewish people: the simple ‘wood-hewer’ or ‘water-carrier’ contributes something to each and every one of his fellow Jews, including the most exalted ‘head.’”4

The theme of Jewish unity carries over to Yom Kippur, when we all stand together as one before G‑d as our judgment is sealed, and as the highest level of our soul, the yechidah, is revealed, a level of our soul synonymous with unity between us and G‑d that we share with every Jew.

Once again, on Sukkot, we celebrate this unity in an even more concrete way, as we join together joyously in Sukkahs, which include and embrace Jews of every kind, and perform the mitzvah of the Four Kinds (lulav and etrog), symbolizing the fact that despite differences in Torah knowledge and observance, we are all bound together by our souls’ Jewish identity and core connection to G‑d.

Finally, we arrive at Shemini Atzeret. On this day, the awareness of Jewish unity that began infiltrating our consciousness on Rosh Hashana, intensified on Yom Kippur, and was expressed tangibly throughout Sukkot is meant to penetrate our hearts to the point that it becomes part of us, internalized and integrated fully into who we are, and expressed in all that we say and do. For at the height of our celebration of our special, intimate relationship with G‑d, we also recognize that this relationship is what binds us as Jewish people, our common denominator. Thus, we also recognize the great value that every one of us brings to G‑d’s vision for the world. We recognize that if a person is challenged in some way, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, in no way do these challenges limit them spiritually; in fact, our unique challenges give us opportunities to connect with G‑d and contribute to the world in a way that others cannot. We recognize that every person is given a portion in the world to make shine, a dark corner of the world to bring light into. We recognize that every one of us is precious and important in the eyes of G‑d.

Thus, on Shemini Atzeret we express Jewish unity not in a passive sense (standing together in prayer) or even a symbolic sense (shaking a lulav); we demonstrate it through an experiential, concrete act that encompasses our entire being, from our head to our feet. We do it through the act of dancing, and more specifically, dancing in a circular formation, as is customary in Jewish tradition.

One may ask: Why a circle dance? Why move in such a way that you don’t get any further than when you started?

Because a circle is not about progress or achievement; it is about harmony and togetherness.

In a circle, we do not place ourselves or others in a hierarchy—be it physical, intellectual, or spiritual.

In a circle, we recognize that there is no such thing as higher or lower, more important or less important; we have different gifts, different challenges. Yet we all share the same soul-root, mission and destiny.

In a circle, we are all equidistant from the center, from the Creator and Source of Life; G‑d is equally accessible to every person.

In a circle, we can see the face of every single person, the part of them that expresses their innermost self, 5 and truly connect with them and empathize without judgment.

In a circle, we acknowledge that every person needs every other person for the circle to remain complete—we possess strengths that others lack, and vice versa. We all have our role to fill; every person deserves the opportunity to utilize their G‑d-given gifts.

**

The inclusion of all Jews is the backbone a flourishing Jewish community, and in the spirit of Jewish unity that the holiday of Shemini Atzeret so embodies, it is a ripe opportunity to shine a light on the importance of ensuring that every Jew, including those with disabilities, feels welcome in the festivities of the holiday. After all, the minute that one person feels unwelcome in the circle of joy and brotherhood, we have defeated the purpose of what the circle dance, and Shemini Atzeret as a whole, represents.

Inclusion begins with an awareness and an attitude that every person is inherently valuable and has something precious to contribute. But it cannot stop there. Practically, efforts toward making sure others feel included can begin with leaders of communities and synagogues advertising an event such as hakafot (the dancing ceremony of Shemini Atzeret) as an inclusive environment, and inviting people who have particular needs to reach out and let the event organizer or rabbi of the congregation know in advance how they might be able to accommodate those needs. While not all barriers to inclusion (such as structural ones—ramps and elevators for instance) can be addressed realistically in a short time frame, others are easily solved with some advance planning. For example: arranging for someone who has difficulty hearing to be positioned in a place where they can hear better, or arranging for a sign language interpreter; adjusting the lighting in the room or making sure printed material features large letters for a person with trouble seeing; creating a buddy system so that a person with a physical disability can hold the Torah scroll with the aid of an able-bodied individual, or be pushed in a wheelchair while holding the Torah scroll; and so on.

On Shemini Atzeret, we say a special prayer for rain, which is symbolic of bringing potential into actual—and this, too, must be our objective on Shemini Atzeret: to allow the central High Holiday theme of Jewish unity to be tangibly and practically expressed, planted firmly in our attitude and behavior—which begins by ensuring that every Jew feels welcome and included in the celebration of our most precious gift: our connection to G‑d, to the Torah, and to the entire Jewish nation.

If you are aware of someone living with a particular disability in your community and want to help them feel welcome and included in your event, contact the hotline of the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative, 701-404-RCII(7277).

Footnotes
1.
Literally, “the eighth day of withholding”
2.
Pri Etz Chayim, Sha’ar Rosh Hashanah, 1.
3.
He prefaces his explanation with the following story: The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells the story of Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who fell ill and was at the brink of death when his father’s prayers brought him back to life. When he came to, his father asked him: “My son, what did you see (in heaven)?” Rav Yosef replied: “I saw an upside-down world. Those who are on top here are on the bottom there; and those who are here regarded as lowly are exalted in heaven.”
4.
Likutei Torah, Nitzavim 42a
5.
The Hebrew word for face is “panim,” which shares a root with the word “penimut,” or internality.
Chava Shapiro is a writer and member of the curriculum development team at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. She lives with her husband and children in Hillside, New Jersey.
The Ruderman-Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of human and educational resources to create a Culture of Inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Helen Dudden Bristol October 21, 2016

A very important article. It clearly speaks of the importance of everyone.

Disability need not separate, we all join inthe dance of life. Reply

Anonymous Omaha, NE October 20, 2016

Mind Boggling to Me Wow, this is the best article on this holiday I have read ever. I've been researching this subject for years as my Jewish Birthday is 22 Tishri. The first prayer I ever learned to pray was for the rain when I was like 5 years of age. Really enjoyed learning more of the deeper spiritual aspects of this holiday, especially since so much of it strangely mixes in throughout my life thus far. This information makes me more certain I have picked the perfect Jewish name for myself, Simcha Talia, and I am on the path G-d wants me on. Reply

Jenny Sukkah in Florida October 19, 2016

That was lovely!
Thanks! Reply