Holidays

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

Borrowed Dresses: A Thought about Tu B'Av, the Festival of Love

Tu B’Av is a return to normalcy: Just six days after the Tisha B’Av fast that marks the destruction that senseless hate can wreak, Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of the month of Av) is a day devoted to love.

According to the Mishnah, Israel in antiquity had a minor summer festival when young women would dance in the fields, inviting young men to court them:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:

There were no festivals more joyful for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on [Tu B’Av] the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments – borrowed, so not to shame anyone who didn’t have a garment of her own. Each of the garments required previous ritual immersion. And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.

 This is what they would say: “Young man! Pay close attention and see whom you are about to choose. Don’t be seduced by beauty, but pay heed to a virtuous family.” After all, “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory, but a woman who fears God is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30)…  
                         Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. כָּל הַכֵּלִים טְעוּנִין טְבִילָה. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַמִּשְׁפָּחָה. שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה' הִיא תִתְהַלָּל

There’s so much here in this passage—it seems so against-the-grain of what we might imagine ancient Israel was like, including the young women, in this case, controlling their own romantic destinies. I’ve written about Tu B’Av and love in Judaism, and Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky has posted this excellent essay about the festival’s possible biblical roots.

It’s easy to skip over that passage about the “borrowed white garments.” What an astonishing custom that is: on a day of frivolity and frolicking, the young women of Jerusalem were determined that none of their peers would be hurt or humiliated while the celebrations were happening. So none would wear her own dress; instead, they would share with each other, including those from poor families who couldn’t afford a dress at all. This was how Jews celebrated.

I wonder how this principle might apply today. Our celebrations have become disasters of consumption. The more money you have, the more elaborate the celebration seems to have become. Somehow, brisses turned into bar/bat mitzvahs, bar/bat mitzvahs turned into weddings, and weddings turned into… what? Papal ordinations?

Each May in Boston, it seems that every Jewish organization has its “Annual Dinner,” where much-needed funds are raised to finance the crucial work that these non-profits, day schools, and synagogues perform year-round. And yet… I know many Jewish professionals dread that time of the year, when night after night they have to experience this season of conspicuous consumption, when many of the values of modesty, equality, and integrity go out the window in pursuit of the big donors’ money. One (important) organization, for instance, is known for charging substantial dollars for a seat at its annual dinner—and for those who pay less, but are committed to the cause, there are tables in an entirely different room from the rest of the donors and speakers! They get to watch the event videostreamed to them in their "annex."

But enough grumpiness. I’m thinking about the daughters of Jerusalem, and what we might learn from them. They teach us, for instance, why Tzedakah organizations that feed hungry people need to serve dinner on china, and use real utensils, even though plastic utensils are so much easier to clean up. It’s why food programs need fresh baked pies and chocolate chip cookies, not just soup and a green vegetable.

It’s why it’s not enough to donate your old clothes—by definition, clothes that you wouldn’t wear any more—or your old furniture, or old video games, or anything else. Laudable as those gifts may be (they certainly shouldn't be thrown out), we're supposed to reach for a higher standard. Maimonides had this nailed 900 years ago. He said that the definition of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was this: “What I want for myself, I want for other people. And what I don’t want for myself, I don’t want [to happen to] them.” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #206)

Can you imagine a high school prom—where all the students, boys and girls alike, wear “borrowed clothes” from one another, so that no one is trying to outdo their neighbor? No one would show up in a fancier car than anyone else—not only because it’s in extremely bad taste, but also because they wouldn’t want to humiliate anyone whose family couldn’t afford otherwise.

Can you imagine how different synagogue life would be—especially in the notorious “Bar Mitzvah Year”? Rich families would no longer say, “If I’ve got it, why shouldn’t I flaunt it?” Because they would understand that exorbitant spending puts pressure on all the other families in a community, making others think, “I suppose that’s the community standard that is expected of us.”

Of course, every child in the class would be invited to everyone else’s birthday party—because no one would ever want to have someone else be hurt on the occasion of their celebration.

I'd be curious to know other ways in which readers would apply this principle. Can you imagine how different, how sensitive, how empathetic our communities could be?

I can imagine it. Call it a hippie-socialist-Bernie-kibbutz fantasy if you want, but I'll take the Sages and the young women of Jerusalem from long ago, and their definition of what a "Festival of Love" really should be. 

The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

On Israel's 70th Independence Day

My prized possession:

Der Tog.jpg

The front page of the daily American Yiddish newspaper “Der Tog” ("The Day"), May 15, 1948, the day after Israel’s independence. On that day the paper was produced in blue ink. My grandfather saved it for me, giving it to me about five years after his death.

The large headline says, Iddishe Melukha: "Jewish State."

"Recognition from America"

“Ben Gurion proclaims Jewish State: 'Israel'”

Lower left corner: Truman, Herzl, and Ben Gurion


1,978 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

!חג שמח

​​​​​​​Nevertheless, Esther Persisted: Purim in a Nutshell

An insecure ruler, prone to acting on his whims and accustomed to a lifestyle of outrageous luxury and recreation, loves nothing more than dining and celebrating with the wealthy elite who support him.[1] He declares a nationwide holiday, many months devoted to opulence and debauchery.

The king's holiday is a celebration of deregulation.[2]

The king has a closed circle of male sycophantic advisors[3], all of whom are outwardly subservient to the king (but behind the scenes, know that he is easily manipulated by flattery[4]). They call for the queen to perform erotically for them.[5] Vashti rejects the king’s crass locker-room talk.

Vashti, the king’s first wife and a victim of his sexual predation[6], disappears from the story, never to be heard from again. The king is excited to marry a new and younger wife, perhaps an immigrant to Shushan. In essence, the king holds a "Miss Persia" pageant which he owns (and of course has no reservations taking advantage of the young hopeful contestants).

A young Jewish woman named Hadassah—but who goes in polite society by the less ethnic-sounding name Esther[7]—against all odds ends up in the royal household. To ensure populist approval, the king cuts taxes and distributes favors among his supporters.[8]

The king appoints Haman, who has a notorious nationalist[9] and anti-Semitic record,[10] to be his senior advisor.

Mordecai, who like many Jews has achieved great success in Persia[11], uncovers a plot and saves the king’s life. When Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, Haman issues a decree of annihilation against the Jews. He seduces the king with talk about how a third-column of immigrants threatens real Persians.[12] It is time to put Persia First; Haman posits that a sinister cabal of Jews who follow only their own protocols is holding the nation back from being great.[13] Antisemitic incidents rise; it’s worse than it’s been in anyone’s recent memory.

There is no official response from the administration.

Mordecai petitions Esther to take a stand. Esther agrees, but notes that everyone in the king’s inner circle knows that he is very prone to impulsiveness and lashing out, so who knows what will happen?[14]

Nevertheless, Esther persisted.[15] She invites the king and Haman to a most exclusive royal banquet.

Meanwhile, despite the air of general prosperity, Haman is incensed that a foreigner—Mordecai—continues not to know his own place.[16] He plots to have Mordecai killed.

The king, unable to sleep, instructs an aide read to him (rather than actually reading himself).[17] There, he discovers that even though Mordecai had saved his life, he had not remembered to thank him. Haman is forced to lead Mordecai in a royal procession through the capital. Humiliated, Haman mourns for his once-great country.[18]

Haman, the king, and Esther have their private banquet. She reveals Haman’s plot and the king, enraged, declares that his friend and former advisor has clearly lost his mind.[19] Haman is publicly executed.

However, the edict calling for the destruction of the Jews remains in effect. The arcane founding laws of the country have not evolved with current technology, so there is no legal way to prevent a massacre from happening.[20]  An edict calls upon the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies.

The resistance is successful. The Jews find success unlike any they have received in any other kingdom.[21] Esther and Mordecai are ensconced in power. In their opulence, wealth, and feasting—and in becoming accustomed to violence committed in their name, always in self-defense, of course[22]—the Jews of Shushan even start to act just like the Persians did at the beginning of the book. [23]

A holiday is declared to remember these events. Part of the observance is a reminder to give gifts to poor people,[24] who previously have been invisible in this story.

An annual day of irreverence and celebration—called “Purim,” to remind us how so much of our fate relies on chance—is established.

The king raises taxes.[25] Life returns to normal. The book ends with praise of Mordecai, who apparently saved the Jews singlehandedly.[26]


[1] Esther 1:3
[2] 1:8
[3] 1:10, 1:14
[4] 1:19-20
[5] 1:11, Esther Rabbah 3:13
[6] 1:12
[7] 2:7
[8] 2:18
[9] Esther Rabbah 7:4
[10] 3:1
[11] Esther Rabbah 6:2
[12] 3:8
[13] 3:8
[14] 4:11
[15] 4:15
[16] 5:9
[17] 6:1
[18] 6:12
[19] 7:8
[20] 8:8
[21] 8:17, 9:4
[22] 9:5, 9:16
[23] 9:17
[24] 9:22
[25] 10:1
[26] 10:2-3

The Secret of the Seventh Light

Tonight is the seventh light of Chanukah, which is also Rosh Chodesh: the new moon in tonight’s sky heralds the start of the new month of Tevet.

(To be technical about it, this month has a two-day Rosh Chodesh, which happens occasionally; the new moon is on the second night, Monday night. Here’s more.) 

I think this night holds one of the secrets of the Chanukah.

Chanukah, ritually speaking, is very simple. For eight nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev, we light menorahs and place them so they can be seen by passers-by. We begin with one light and we increase incrementally until the final night, when the menorah is fully lit with eight flames.

This is the key symbol of Chanukah. Chanukah always falls during these eight days around the new moon that is most closely situated to the winter solstice—that is, days with the least amount of daylight (in the northern hemisphere) and most darkness: the sun is at its most distant point from earth’s axis and the moon is at its most obscured.

During that darkest time of the year—that’s precisely when we have our festival of lighting lights. And light, of course, is a pregnant symbol. It can mean justice, love, faith, peace, hope, wisdom (“enlightenment”), hidden mystical Truth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812) taught that while other festivals are celebrated with symbols that are inherently physical (matzah, sukkah, shofar, etc.), only Chanukah is celebrated with a symbol that is inherently spiritual: light.  

And Beit Hillel in the Talmud famously taught that in matters of holiness, our task is to always increase light, and never to decrease it (Shabbat 21b). 

Yet here’s the thing: during the first six nights of Chanukah, we stubbornly light the menorah—even while the world gets darker and darker. We add flames while the light of the moon keeps diminishing.

But tonight there’s a change. Tonight the moon starts to emerge and wax larger. It’s as if to say that our efforts have started to pay off:  The world is starting to follow our persistent lead, inclining towards light rather than darkness. 

Look, the world these days can seem pretty dark—no matter what darkness connotes for you. Things seem hopeless? Nations seem to be careening towards corruption and war instead of integrity and peace? People who said they care about you seem heartless? Feels like greed and materialism are winning out? I know the feeling—I’ve been there.

But the aspiration of Chanukah is that hope wins out in the long term. Keep using a spark to light more lights—and the world slowly, inevitably, will start to incline towards the light.

Rain (I Don't Mind) - For Shemini Atzeret

 

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה' בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽה' עֲצֶ֣רֶת הִ֔וא כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth (ha-shemini) day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering (atzeret) you shall not work at your occupations. (Leviticus 23:36)


The holiday called Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the gathering on the eighth day”) is for many people the phantom, forgotten festival in Jewish life. Even Jews who determinedly spend their week in the Sukkah might be hard-pressed to say what, exactly, that eighth day is all about.

The 23rd day of the seventh month is the culmination of a three-and-half week period full of holidays: Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot have all preceded it. It arrives eight days after Sukkot begins, the final punctuation mark on this festival-rich season.

This prompts the Rabbis to ruminate about how Sukkot in the autumn complements Pesach in the spring: just as Pesach is the 7-day pilgrimage festival celebrating the spring planting, Sukkot is the 7-day pilgrimage which rejoices in the fall harvest. Passover is “capped” after 50 days by a holiday that is called Atzeret (we call that early-summer holiday Shavuot). So, for the sake of symmetry, Sukkot should also be “capped” by an Atzeret.  (But why isn’t it 50 days later? The midrash answers: because winter is coming, and a pilgrimage in the middle of winter’s rain and snow would be too arduous for the Jews.) (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 15)

But the special identity of this day is far from clear, and the Torah doesn’t make it much clearer when it discusses ancient Israel’s festivals. In Leviticus, the Atzeret sounds like the capstone to the seven days of Sukkot, and is a holiday in its own right (“you shall not work at your occupations”). In Numbers, a large numbers of sacrifices are made on each day of Sukkot; on the eighth day, a more modest offering is prescribed, indicating that the eighth day was connected to Sukkot, and yet separate and distinct from it (Numbers 29: 35-38). And in Deuteronomy, there is no mention of an eighth-day assembly after the seven days of Sukkot (Deut. 16:13-15)!

Later in the Bible, we read of the enormous Sukkot celebrations that took place in Jerusalem. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple on the Sukkot holiday, Shemini Atzeret is the “one more day,” for the king (and the King of Kings) to spend together with the people of Israel; a little more time to linger together before everyone trudges home to face the approaching winter (I Kings 8:66).

Consider at what a sweet image that is. Long before rabbis griped and groaned about Jews who couldn’t be bothered to show up to synagogue more than twice a year, the Bible was imagining God, surveying the Sukkot masses in Jerusalem, saying, “This time we’ve had together during the holidays has been so special—for Me! Stay just a little longer, just one day, so we can savor it just a little more.” That was Shemini Atzeret.

By the generations of the Talmud, Shemini Atzeret (like many of the Torah’s holidays) had acquired some new features. It developed one overarching theme: water.

Shemini Atzeret became the time when the Rabbis would pray that life-giving rains would soak the land of Israel. They (as do we) begin to insert the words “you cause the wind to blow and the rains to fall” in the second blessing of the Amidah on Shemini Atzeret. And one of the key features of the liturgy on this day is an elaborate piyyut called Geshem (“Rain”).

Water is a historical worry for the dwellers of the Land of Israel. Diaspora-dwellers might find this hard to understand. In North America, rain can fall pretty much any time in the calendar year. Not so for Israel; almost all the annual rainfall comes down during a five-month rainy season from November to March. An ancient farmer, dependent on winter rains for a successful sowing season in the spring, would be very much aware if the rain was even just a few weeks late. Thus we can understand their fear and trepidation when rain had yet to arrive. An entire tractate of the Mishnah, Ta’anit, is devoted to the prayers and fasts that are prescribed for the community when the rain has failed to come.

The Torah testified that the Land of Israel was dependent on the rain. By contrast, the land of Egypt did not rely on rain; rather, the irrigation of Egyptian fields came from the overflowing waters of the Nile River. The 3rd-century apocalyptic prophet Zechariah knew this; as he called upon God to punish the oppressive nations of the world with drought, he acknowledged that drought will not be much of a punishment against Egypt. Don’t worry, the prophet says; Egypt will get its own special, appropriate form of discipline! (Zechariah 14:18).

But the Land of Israel is different. Israel depends on God’s mercies, expressed through rainfall:

כִּ֣י הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ לֹ֣א כְאֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִ֔וא אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצָאתֶ֖ם מִשָּׁ֑ם
אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּזְרַע֙ אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ וְהִשְׁקִ֥יתָ בְרַגְלְךָ֖ כְּגַ֥ן הַיָּרָֽק׃
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ אֶ֥רֶץ הָרִ֖ים וּבְקָעֹ֑ת לִמְטַ֥ר הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם תִּשְׁתֶּה־מָּֽיִם׃

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heavens. (Deut. 11:10-11)

Worrying about water is still the case today. A visitor to the Dead Sea cannot help but notice that this marvel is rapidly dissipating; it recedes a few dozen meters each year. The water level of the Kinneret precipitously rises and falls. And the battle over control of aquifers and water-sources is part of the realpolitik between Israel and her neighbors.

Today, Israel is the world’s greatest water innovator. It has successfully deployed technology, conservation, and good management to meet the water needs of its citizens and its crops—with enough left over that it even exports water to its neighbors! (In the Boston suburbs, by contrast, it seems like every summer there is a drought and the towns rush into panic-mode, limiting the amount of water that people can use.)  The themes of water scarcity and how Israel has addressed it are discussed in the recent book Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel.

The Sages of the Talmud, as was their wont, took these themes and spiritualized them. In Babylonia, drought was less of a worry than it was in the Land of Israel. So for the Rabbis, rain became a symbol of God’s benevolence and spiritual openness. (The Beatles knew this too.)  אין מים אלא תורה says the Talmud (Bava Kamma 17a); “Wherever the Torah mentions ‘water,’ read ‘Torah’ instead.”  They make a comparison: Just as rain delivers physical sustenance, Torah brings spiritual sustenance.

Shemini Atzeret, then, has a symbolic and deeply powerful meaning to those who are open to it. On Sukkot, we expressed our gratitude for the harvest of blessings with which we are surrounded. As the holiday concludes, we pray for life-giving waters that will sustain us and create a fertile environment for blessings yet to come. If this can happen, then we know that we can find the resources and strength to face the long cold winter ahead.