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Shemini Atzeret: The conclusion we’ve been waiting for

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During the coronavirus pandemic, some of us have been missing conclusions. Due to restrictions for example, some graduation ceremonies have not taken place. School years have ended without an opportunity for pupils to say goodbye to each other, and people have left a job without a farewell.

This is the reason why we have Shemini Atzeret – an additional day added to a series of significant dates in our calendar. After Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the festival of Succot, Shemini Atzeret, an additional day, comes along.

The Sifri explains,

‘Ein atzira eila knisa,’ – ‘The term ‘atzira’ or ‘atzeret’ means gathering,’ indicating an opportunity for people to gather together physically, and also an opportunity for us to gather our thoughts together. Shemini Atzeret provides us with an opportunity for a fitting conclusion.

In temple times there was a fascinating halacha relating to visitation to Jerusalem: ta’un lina.

If ever one came for a sacred purpose to the city, you had to stay overnight. You couldn’t  just offer your korban, your sacrifice, and then go straight home – one needed to allow the experience to sink in so that when going home, one would be fully inspired by that uplifting visit.

I’m reminded of this sometimes. Today it’s so easy to visit special Jewish sites in Europe that one can leave one’s home early in the morning and come back late that night, having been to places of great celebration or great mourning for the Jewish people. I always feel bad when that happens. You want the opportunity for the experience to sink in properly. That’s why in Jerusalem one had to stay the extra night.

Similarly with Shemini Atzeret, we have that additional day. What do we do on Shemini Atzeret? In Israel it’s one day, in the diaspora two days – and there are two prime additions: Yizkor and Simchat Torah. During Yizkor, we remember parents and grandparents – those who have inspired us to lead an upright life. And we also rejoice in the Torah: we consider how significant the Torah is in our lives.

Simchat Torah is not mentioned in the Torah – it was introduced by us because we appreciate that having had such an uplifting experience over the Yomim Tovim, the best way to maximise our thoughts of those experiences is to appreciate a Torah way of life and it is with that in mind that we now move into the rest of the year.

In this spirit, may this Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah be a fitting conclusion for us to our Yom Tov season.

Chag sameach.