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The End (Shemini Atzeret)

Twice each day, Jews across the world recite a series of Biblical passages referred to collectively as the shema. In the second of these passages, colloquially known as ve-hayah im shamoa (Deut. 11:13-21), Hashem pledges to send bnei Yisrael abundant rain in return for their faithfully upholding His commandments, and warns that He will withhold rain should they forsake those commandments. 

These stipulations are stated fairly generically and strike us, at first glance, as being equally relevant at any point in the Jewish year. However, if we carefully consider the content of ve-hayah im shamoa, we discover that it applies most directly during a very specific period on the calendar—namely, during the holiday of “Sukkot.” After all, the ultimate reward promised to bnei Yisrael in ve-haya im shamoa is plentiful agricultural yield:  “And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments… then I will give the rain of your land at its time… and you will gather in [ואספתve’asafta] your grain…” (Deut. 11:13-14). Thus, it is during the agricultural season of Sukkot—the “festival of ingathering” [חג האסיףchag ha’assif] (Exod. 34:22)—that the blessing of ve-haya im shamoa ultimately materializes.

Indeed, this connection is all but made explicit by the Biblical context in which vehayah im shamoa is situated. Though not included in our liturgy, the introductory verses to vehayah im shamoa, as they appear in the Torah, assign our passage a clear time frame: “The land which you are passing over to possess…is a land that the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deut. 11:11-12). Surely Sukkot, which heralds the end of one agricultural cycle and the beginning of the next, represents the point of demarcation between the “beginning of the year” and the “end of the year” referred to in this verse. In fact (and somewhat surprisingly, perhaps), Sukkot is the only festival identified by the Torah as separating between one year and the next: “And you shall make… the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year” (Exod. 34:22); “And you shall make… the festival of ingathering at the departure of the year” (Exod. 23:16). Evidently, then, vehayah im shamoa is “set” in the season of Sukkot.

And if that is the case, then vehayah im shamoa sheds light not only upon the holiday of Sukkot, but also upon another, closely related holiday: “[Shemini] Atzeret.” This one-day festival, which immediately follows the week of Sukkot, is described by Hashem in the tersest of terms:

For seven days [=the days of Sukkot], you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. On the eighth day, it shall be a holy occasion for you, and you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. It is an “Atzeret” [עצרת]. You shall not perform any work of labor (Lev. 23:36; see also Num. 29:35-36).

The sparse details that the Torah provides regarding Shemini Atzeret explain neither the meaning of the holiday in its own right, nor its thematic relationship to the holiday of Sukkot with which it is conjoined. Yet we do know that the term “עצרת” (atzeret) means “stopping.” In fact, that very root, ע.צ.ר, happens to play a key role in vehayah im shamoa. It appears in that passage just as Hashem transitions away from discussing the bountiful “ingathering” which we have linked with Sukkot:

And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day—to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul—then I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in [ואספתve’asafta] your grain. And I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated. Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate yourselves before them. And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will stop off [ועצר—ve’atzar] the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that the Lord gives you (Deut. 11:13-17).

How fascinating! In both veyaha im shamoa and in the laws of Sukkot, “עצר” (“stop”—atzar) is deliberately contrasted with “אסף” (“ingathering”—assaf). And both instances of “atzeret,” as it were, represent a divinely ordained cessation from labor. But the “atzeret” of the shema comes as punishment for disobeying Hashem’s will, whereas the atzeret of “shemini”—that is, Shemini Atzeret—is instituted as a festival.

And the most profound novelty implied by this festival may be precisely that: namely, that atzeret, “work stoppage,” can actually provide cause for celebration. For the duration of the agricultural cycle—the bulk of the calendar year—atzeret is (rightly) regarded by the farmer as a sign of divine displeasure. So used is the farmer to maximizing his utility in each and every moment—the quality of his harvest depends upon it, after all—that atzeret, in his mind, has become synonymous with sorrow. Few things bring him greater distress than the inability to perform his allotted task. He correctly intuits that he was placed in this world for the purpose of doing, creating, producing, accomplishing—and that is what he has trained himself to desire. By nature, he does not want to stop; he wants to keep on going.

Yet while our farmer is right for regarding an atzeret which arrives at the wrong time of the year as a curse, he may forget that it is also a curse if atzeret never arrives. Indeed, a year without an atzeret is a year in which is rendered permanent one of the starkest curses ever issued to humankind: the curse of “בזעת אפך,” “be-ze’at apecha” (see Gen. 3:9)—of trapping ourselves in endless servitude to the hungers of both appetite and ambition. It would be all too easy for the farmer to slip into this trap. Left to his own devices, our farmer might well be tempted, following the ingathering of one agricultural cycle, to throw himself back into the fields as soon as possible, so he can begin anew in preparation for next year’s crop. And it is Shemini Atzeret that puts the brakes on that impulse. The only law that governs Shemini Atzeret is “perform no creative labor;” this is not because the day lacks distinctive character, but because “perform no creative labor” is in fact what this holiday is essentially about. It is about transforming atzeret—interruptive respite—from a curse into a blessing.

That is why the agricultural cycle cannot culminate merely with Sukkot. Unlike Sukkot—the holiday of assif, the “festival of ingathering”—atzeret does not exist within the regular rhythms of the work cycle. We do not observe it so that we can rejoice in our productivity; it is not there so that we can give thanks for our productivity; and neither is it there so we can recharge for future periods of productivity. It transcends productivity, in the conventional sense. It is an atzeret—an end unto itself—a holiday purely for the sake of a holiday. It is a holiday whose sole goal is to remove us from the work cycle; to break that cycle just as we would have re-entered it; to ensure that we start and end our year not as “human doings,” but as human beings—humans, that is, who are comfortable simply “being” in the presence of Hashem, and of our loved ones—and who actually enjoy it, and who actively seek it, simply because there is nothing else that we would rather be “doing.”

After all, our relationships with Hashem, and our relationships with our loved ones—these are the true “ends” for which we work. And until we have dedicated a part of our year to reflecting upon this, our work cycle has not truly culminated. It remains incomplete. It cannot yet be claimed a success. In short—it has not yet come to its “end.”

Chag sameach!

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