At a glance, Shemini Atzeret looks like it punctuates our festival calendar like sof pasuk, the end of a Torah verse. The Torah ordains Shemini Atzeret as a festival separate from Sukkot, with its own sacrifice. Yet it is treated as an eighth and ninth day of Sukkot. Despite the Torah’s intentions, “shemini” means “eighth.” While it is not the eighth day of Sukkot, the day after Shemini Atzeret, known as the ninth day, became the day for completing and restarting the Torah reading cycle. It was only in the Middle Ages that the “ninth day” became Simchat Torah.
We learn in the haftarah for Shemini Atzeret (I Kings 8:54-66) that the second week of celebration of dedicating the Temple was the “Chag,” Sukkot. Although Atzeret is not written there, it is on the eighth day that Solomon instructs the people to return to their homes. On Shemini Atzeret, we continue the traditions of Sukkot without reciting the blessing for dwelling in the sukkah. On the eighth day, we, too, leave our sukkot in which some of us have spent the last week, perhaps, sleeping, eating, and welcoming guests. It’s time to disassemble and store them for next year. We leave the sukkah’s smells of arbor and citron, the memories of good conversations and the ease we experience inside this structure, an icon of our relationship with God. We go home. But where do we go when we go “home”? Going home has different connotations. It may suggest an actual residence, or a land to which a person is repatriated after exile, or a place of personal dreams of warmth and safety, yet has no specific map coordinates. “Home” could be a heavenly abode. For most of us, “home” suggests permanence, a walled-off space offering privacy and protection, a place where one may enjoy peace and seek equanimity.
Tradition has it that although Moses’ yahrzeit is the 9th of Adar, it is on Shemini Atzeret that God informs Moses of his pending death. It is a matter not taken lightly by Moses. We read in the Midrash that Moses vehemently protests God’s verdict, appealing to nature to testify on his behalf to reverse God’s judgment.
My throat tightens and tears well up as I struggle to get through the verses describing the death of Moses. Moses wants to go home with his people, but he cannot. In his early life, Moses is shuttled between his mother’s home and the Egyptian palace. Along with the people Moses was ordained to lead, he was homeless most of his life. Moses expects to enter the promised home of his people, but God denies him. His dreams unrealized, Moses dies without ever reaching his home. It was left to the second desert generation to initiate settlement. While I am tempted to write that it is left to us to complete Moses’ journey, I would rather pick up on the human desire to have a home.
Our experience as Jews either personally or through historic memory has made us sensitive to the plight of our people throughout the world. We have been generous in our response when Jews are dispossessed from their lands or are the victims of hostile regimes. We want Israel to be strong, to be that place where all Jews may go if they need a home. Yes, we have welcomed Jews here, but it is Israel’s destiny to be that safe haven, not just a temporary shelter for our people.
It is our passion that Israel remains safe, defeating every naysayer who poses Israel as a European enclave settled out of European guilt for the Holocaust.
To preserve the Jewish homeland is to defend it against lies purporting to be truths. To preserve the Jewish homeland is to defend its uniqueness as also the home of Christian and Muslim Arabs, and as rescuer and home of Vietnamese and Sudanese who know Israel’s goodness. To preserve Israel’s goodness is to pursue virtue within its borders, to practice what makes Israel a Jewish home and homeland.
Within our borders, going home in Bergen and Passaic counties is a trial for too many. You may have heard of Peter’s Place, a seasonal homeless shelter housed at Christ Church in Hackensack for nearly 13 years. The safe haven is not there anymore. The County of Bergen has contracted with the Christ Church Development Corp., the sponsor of Peter’s Place and Next Step, a program to provide employment counseling for the homeless, to move its services into the new Housing, Health, and Human Services Center on River Street in Hackensack (next to Costco). The move to the new facility signals a formal change in policy toward homelessness in our community. The new center will provide temporary housing while permanent housing is found for the homeless. While at the center, the temporary residents receive medical care and counseling. For the individuals and families who had to believe at times that their living in shelters was not temporary, this is their time to celebrate. Now, they can go home again.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach.