“‘For seven days present food offerings to the LORD, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the LORD. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work.'” Leviticus 23:36
Note to our Reader: Today marks the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which along with Simchat Torah, is a celebration of the completion of the annual Torah readings and the immediate beginning of the new year of Torah readings. Because these are non-working holidays, these devotions were prepared in advance for you.
We’ve just been through a month-long intense and intentional journey with God. We began with the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed by Sukkot which we celebrated by living in our huts for seven days. Now, the Bible commands us to commemorate one more day “on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly . . .” What is the purpose of this eighth day?
To understand what this final day of festivities is about, let’s revisit one of the themes of Sukkot. Sukkot celebrates our relationship with God. While a sukkah is more or less a makeshift hut, there are some laws and guidelines. One such requirement is that a sukkah must minimally consist of two full walls and a third wall that is at least three-and-a-half inches tall, known as a “handbreadth” in Jewish law.
The rabbis explain that these basic walls represent God’s arm and the sukkah is His embrace. In Song of Songs 2:6, we read, “his right arm embraces me.” The rabbis explain that God’s arm embraces us through the sukkah. The first wall is like God’s arm, the second wall like God’s forearm, and the third small wall is like God’s hand. Together they surround us with a hug.
The day after Sukkot, this eighth day, is a time of parting. The Jewish sages explain God’s institution of this holiday with the following analogy: “There once was a king who invited his children for a banquet of several days. When it came time for them to go, he said to them: ‘My children, stay with me one more day your parting is difficult for me . . . ‘” God is the King and we are His children. However, notice that it says “YOUR parting is difficult . . .” The rabbis explain that this is because only we depart from God’s embrace; God never leaves us.
Our leaving the presence of God is necessary. We need to go back to “real life” where we will naturally encounter more distance from God compared to the intensity of the holiday season. However, we take this final day to recognize that while we are about to separate from God, we get to decide exactly how far away we will go. No, we can’t stay in the sukkah forever, but we can take the sukkah with us and keep it in our hearts.
As we go about our daily routines, let’s resolve to keep as close as possible to God. He is always with us, but it’s up to us to be aware of His presence and make it felt. Take moments throughout the day to pray, study, and perform acts of kindness. In this way, while the holiday season may end, our relationship with God will continue to grow stronger with each passing day.