Sedra of the Week: Shemini Atzeret
Rabbi Jeff Berger looks ahead to this week’s portion of the Torah
Shemini Atzeret has a dual identity. It falls on the eighth day, immediately after Succot. It is a festival in its own right, but without rituals. Yet, like Succot, our prayers refer to it as ‘the time of our happiness’ (zeman simhateinu).
One tradition identified in the Talmud is to recite the Prayer for Rain (Tefillat Geshem) in the Shemini Atzeret Musaf service.
From ancient times, water was perceived as a precious resource for all living beings, even if in Britain we take it for granted. By contrast, from 2014 to 2019, Israel experienced a drought exceeding anything in its past 100 years.
In a Mediterranean climate with a few months of rain at best, Tefillat HaGeshem was a way to beseech God to provide precipitation during the winter months. When rains were delayed, leaders instituted a series of public fasts.
Andalusian poet Salomon Ibn Gabirol beautifully articulated our dependence on rain in his poem Shifat Revivim with the refrain. “Open now Your treasure, give life to all into whom You’ve breathed a soul, by causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”
Atzeret means ‘gathering’. We also refer to Shavuot as Hag HaAtzeret. The Babylonian Talmud informs us that just as Shavuot comes 50 days after Pesach, Shemini Atzeret was intended to come 50 days after Sukkot, but God had compassion on Jewish farmers, not requiring of them another pilgrimage during the rainy season.
Shemini Atzeret thus inspires joy and gratitude. We seldom appreciate what we have until it’s absent or lost. The past months have shown how blessed we are.
As winter approaches, practising gratitude allows us to see things as they exist, not as we might wish them to be. Rather than lamenting what we’ve lost, Shemini Atzeret dually teaches us to find joy in what we have and to be thankful.
- Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at rabbijefflondon