Stay with God – The Festival of Shemini Atzeret

“On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly: you shall do no work of labor.”
– Numbers 29:35

Shemini Atzeret – the solemn assembly of the eighth day of Sukkot is a holyday whose sole purpose is to allow us to remain one day longer in the presence of our Lord. The Midrash compares Shemini Atzeret to a king whose sons have come from afar to celebrate a festival with him. As the time comes for their departure, the king begs them to remain a little longer with him before returning to their homes. The analogy is clear: we are God’s children and nothing brings him greater joy than to have us in His presence.

Shemini Atzeret is, in fact, the fulfillment of a dual longing. Just as God wants to keep us near Him, we too wish to remain in His presence. After experiencing the power of the Days of Awe and the great joy of the festival of Sukkot, we are reluctant to return to our mundane existence. We have understood the true purpose of our lives and yearn to invest all our energies in its fulfillment. Shemini Atzeret is God’s offering in answer to this prayer.

Shemini Atzeret, however, is much more than simply an extra day to spend with God. Shemini Atzeret is a bridge between the two realities that make up our life. It is a strategy for keeping God’s presence with us always. It is a paradigm how to approach every moment of the day.

We put aside our spiritual longings too easily. We are too quick to accept that we have responsibilities to take of, worldly duties that must be met. Shemini Atzeret comes to tell us not to give up a single opportunity to be with God. Every second in the Divine presence is a precious gift. Shemini Atzeret is a Divine exhortation to turn to God whenever we have a spare moment and to stay in His presence as long as we possibly can.

God is continually revealing Himself to us, but we are so immersed in our material affairs that we cannot hear His call. Shemini Atzeret is a command to stop – la’atzor (in Hebrew) – our physical activities and go inward – to continually add another moment and then yet another moment to our communion with God. If we strive to live our life in this way, we will soon find that there is no time when God is absent from our consciousness. We will see that He is actually present with us always, in everything that we do.

There is a story that is told about the friendship between two disciples of Sri Ramakrishna – Swami Akhandananda and Swami Brahmanananda. Swami Akhandananda regularly traveled from his own ashram to the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order in Calcutta to see his brother disciple. On one occasion, the two swamis had such a wonderful time together that Swami Brahmanananda was loath to let his brother disciple leave. Swami Akhandananda, however, insisted that he must return to his own ashram, so arrangements were made for him to depart the following morning.

Swami Brahmanananda hired a palanquin with two bearers to carry the swami to the train station, which was a fair distance from the ashram. In order to arrive at the station on time, Swami Akhandananda left the ashram in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark. Before they left, Swami Brahmanananda whispered instructions in the ears of the bearers. Then Akhandananda embraced his brother disciple, got into the palanquin, and the bearers set out on the journey.

Exhausted after a late night, Swami Akhandananda closed his eyes and went to sleep. From time to time, he stirred from his sleep to find that the bearers had stopped moving. In answer to the swami’s inquiries, the bearers replied that they only had stopped for a short rest.

Finally, the palanquin came to a complete standstill and the bearers announced that they had arrived at their destination. Swami Akhandananda got out of the palanquin only to find Swami Brahmanananda waiting to greet him with open arms. The bearers had in fact been carrying the swami round and round the ashram compound until he had missed his train.

Amused by Brahmanananda’s mischievous behavior and touched by his brother disciple’s love for him, Swami Ahkhandananda embraced Brahmanananda and agreed to stay at the ashram for a few more days. [1]

This is how our relationship with God works: If we give our heart and soul fully to God, then like Swami Brahmananada, God will not let us leave His presence. He will make all the preparations as if He is sending us out into the world again, but in reality, His bearers will merely carry us around the compound.

This is the hidden purpose behind Shemini Atzeret. On Shemini Atzeret there are no special mitzvot to perform: there is no sukkah, no lulav and etrog, no fasting and no shofar. Shemini Atzeret is simply a day to be with God. If we can truly learn how to be with God in our hearts and minds, then His presence will grow stronger and stronger inside us until finally there will be no separation between God and us.

Shemini Atzeret is a day when express our sincere love for God and experience the depth of His love in return. It is a day when we understand that it is He who has sent us out into the world and that it is His work that we are doing. It is a day when we realize that He or She is present in every experience and encounter in our life. It is a day when we recognize that we are always in the “Divine Headquarters” even as we struggle to survive on this physical plane.

And this is why we dance on Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah is not a dance of wild abandon, nor is it the march of a military band. It is a dance of yearning and longing. It is a dance of love and devotion. It is a dance of clinging to God with all of our heart, mind and soul.

On Shemini Atzeret, we renew our commitment to shift the focus of our lives. We work la’atzor – to stop and be with God. We strive to always remain in God’s Presence. We step out our material palanquin and enter into the arms of the Divine embrace.

Copyright © 2011, by Yoel Glick

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Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)
  1.  Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion

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