I’ve always been pretty good at noticing things. When someone gets a new pair of eyeglasses, I’m usually one of the first to notice. I like to play those games where you have to figure out what’s different or missing in a picture.
But lots of times I’m completely oblivious. Some days I’m so scattered that I misplace things or forget what someone told me. Other times I’m so focused on what I’m thinking about or doing that I inadvertently walk by people without seeing them. (If you were ever one of those people, I truly apologize. It’s not you – it’s me – and I’m working on it.)
The festival of Sukkot is a holiday to help us remember how to pay attention, how to notice and see what we so often miss. Sukkot is designed as a week of disruption, to get us out of our houses and regular routines to see what so often eludes our gaze.
Sitting in the Sukkah this week floods our senses with both new and familiar sensations. We feel the warm blanket of Florida’s early fall humid heat, we smell the pungent fragrances of the outdoors, we hear the sounds of animals, birds, and insects, we see so much more than a window will allow. It’s all there every day, but only on Sukkot do we get out to embrace it.
The last day of Sukkot, the Torah teaches, is called שמיני עצרת – Shemini Atzeret. The Hebrew word עצרת – Atzeret is complicated to translate. It comes from the root to restrict, hold back, or stop. If you see a sign in Israel that says “עצור – Atzur” – you had better STOP.
Rashi suggests that the restriction was to keep us from quickly ending the festival, to linger a little longer in Jerusalem. Imagine, he suggests, a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to leave he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!” It’s as if God doesn’t want us to leave the special holiness of this time.
But I think there is another quality to the stop-sign the Torah holds up for us at the end of Sukkot. It’s to remind us that the roots of morality and spirituality are often grounded in self-restraint.
We tend to think of life in terms of linear progress. So often we assume that life is a set of experiences we need to collect: one and done – been there, done that. We always seem drawn to chase what is new, what we have yet to see or accomplish or experience.
But human experience is not always amplified by moving forward. Sometimes life is better when we hold ourselves back and look again.
Thus we commemorate שמיני עצרת – Shemini Atzeret with Simchat Torah – rejoicing in the gift of Torah.
Our natural impulse upon finishing the cycle of Torah readings would be to say: “Good. All done. On to the next story.” But instead, just as we conclude the last words of the book of Deuteronomy, we immediately turn to the first words of Genesis – literally back to the “beginning.”
The festival of Sukkot ends by asking us not simply to linger another day in Jerusalem, but to linger over the words of Torah. It’s amazing what we can see when we take another look.
Our spirits are fed by awareness, by grounding ourselves in our present reality and opening ourselves up to the fullness of what a moment can offer. Our hearts are fed by truly seeing each other, when we are fully engaged in honest, authentic dialogue and conversation. Our souls are enriched when we discover something new in what we thought was so familiar.
For although the words of Torah never change, we who read them are constantly changing. It’s amazing what we can learn, and who we can be, when we hold ourselves back, when we linger a little longer, and take another look.
Shabbat Shalom – Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”