A More Intimate Gathering

October 16, 2014
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When I was a boy growing up in New York our family gatherings were like a scene out of the Barry Levinson movie Avalon. On Thanksgiving and Chanukah especially our get-togethers would involve not only our immediate family, but also an extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, multiple generations of cousins, and friends. Later the guest list would include both my sister and my machatunom (in-laws) when we were married and beginning our own young families. This large ensemble of personalities would all crowd into my families small 5½-room apartment. Our “dinette” table would be extended by multiple leaves as well as folding “bridge” tables and would continue from the dining area into the front entry, and would “L” into our living room. The beds were covered with coats and discarded layers of sweaters, since the apartment was always intolerably hot due overcrowding and large cast iron radiators. The windows were always open in our first floor apartment to ventilate the excessively crowded rooms. As guests approached the front entrance of our apartment building, there was no need to guess where the party was, because our windows were directly over the front entrance and the loud conversation and laughter could be heard at street level.

What stands out in my memories of these parties is the food. Over against the excess of bodies, the excessive noise, and the excessive heat, the excess of food was the most excessively excessive. We spent days shopping cooking and baking in preparation for the holidays. Our refrigerator in our tiny galley kitchen could never accommodate the food, so the majority was stored during the winter out on the fire escape. When the time came the heirloom china was taken out from the back of the closets and the enormous quantities of food was laid out for consumption. We would usually begin eating in the early afternoon and would not cease until the early evening, when the leftovers would be meticulously put away. We would then wait until our guests left and we would break down the tables, cleanup and vacuum, and store all of the collapsible tables and chairs in the back of closets and under beds. Then we did something really strange! I don’t know when or why we developed this ritual, but at about 10pm, after everyone was gone, we would take out all of the food again, sit down and begin again with our immediate family to eat, talk, laugh and enjoy one another’s company. It was as if to say “the families gone, let’s have a party with the family.”

These fond recollections help me to understand the otherwise inscrutable Shemini Atzeret, a holiday that on first blush has no apparent reason. In fact Shemini Atzeret is almost like a Divine afterthought, an impromptu party for the “fam”. In Vayikra chapter 23, which is essentially the beginners’ handbook for moedim (the prescribed sacred festivals) in the Torah, HaShem commands through Moses the keeping of Sukkot for seven days (33-43). Terse instruction is given for the bringing of libations, the building of Sukkot, and the taking of the lulav and etrog. Of course the rabbinic tradition more fully develops the instruction based upon the Torah. What is most curious is that this chapter has nothing whatsoever to say regarding a supplementary eight-day festival that we call quite unceremoniously Shemini Atzeret (approximately meaning an auxiliary eighth). It is not until the book of Bamidbar that we get an inclination that there is a one-day party after the party (29:35-30:1).

Let me explain a little further. Bamidbar 29 gives precise instruction for the sacrifices and libations that the children of Israel are to offer throughout the fall festivals that God has prescribed in Vayikra 23. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Israel is commanded to bring an offering of a single bull for an oleh (burnt offering), one goat for a purification offering of the altar, and fourteen lambs, seven times the normal morning and evening offerings of weekly Shabbats and Rosh Chodesh (new moon celebrations), and also prescribed grain and wine libations which attend these sacrifices. Starting in verse 12 though are the instructions for the Sukkot sacrifices. Each of the seven days the offerings of lambs, goats, grain and wine remain the same as the other fall festivals – only the number of bulls, the sacrifice of the people changes. And what an odd and excessive offering between the people and there God it becomes. On the first day of Sukkot thirteen bulls are offered. Twelve are offered on the second day, eleven on the third and so on until seven bulls are offered on the seventh day. What is so striking about the descending size of the offering is not only how large it is compared with the single bull for the other fall feasts, but the apparent declamation that is being made with the oddly sized, yet descending quantity of bulls. Perhaps the real instruction is in the seven-day total and not the size of the offering on each individual day alone. After seven days the bull body count is seventy. Even the most casual student of Torah cannot miss the repetitive heptatic structures (matrixes of sevens) throughout Torah. Seven is the magic number of Torah. It is the number of sanctification, of completion; it is the ritual building block of a finished and perfect world that imagines the kingdom of God overtaking the incursion of chaos in the previously unfinished world. It is the number of shalom that anticipates all of the world living in harmony, the lion lying down with the lamb and as Woody Allen once said, “the lamb getting up to tell about it.” Seventy is seven on steroids. It is the number that extends out beyond the family of Israel and invites the family of man into the party.

In this sense Sukkot anticipates more than the agricultural harvest, the ingathering of crops, but rather it foresees the harvest of souls, the ingathering of humanity from all of the nations of the world coming to worship together the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, blessed be He. Zechariah chapter 14, which was the haftarah portion for the first day of Sukkot, last Shabbat, prophesizes that after a last cataclysmic battle, God will intervene and punish those from the nations, that took up arms against Israel. In a vivid apocalyptic picture we are told that all of the nations will then participate with Israel in the celebration of Sukkot, a time when even common cooking utensils will be holy, as will the bells on the horses. Only those from the human family who join Israel’s party will enjoy the favor of Israel’s God. The message is clear, the God of Israel is the God of the world – but one cannot worship the God of Israel apart from the people of Israel. All of the people of the world come before God but do not lose their individual and ethnic identities. They remain individually accountable and ethnically responsible. Most importantly, unless Israel is Israel the entire model collapses.

This brings me back to Bamidbar 29 and its description of the sacrificial system for Sukkot. This is where HaShem prescribes an eighth day celebration through the hand of Moses. We read in Bamidbar:

On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations. You shall present a burnt offering, a gift of pleasing odor to the LORD; one bull, one ram, seven yearling lambs, without blemish; the grain offerings and libations for the bull, the ram, and the lambs, in the quantities prescribed; and one goat for a purification of the offering, its grain offering and libation. (29:35-38)

As obvious as the addition of an eighth day celebration is, so is the downsizing of the offering. The prescribed menu is back to an Israel only buffet. So of course this begs the questions why, and why? The Talmud attempts to answer these questions by picturing HaShem as a great king who hosts an enormous party whereby all in the kingdom are invited. As the festival comes to an end the other nations depart, the Holy One says to Israel, “Stay here with Me a little while longer for a more intimate celebration.” (BT Sukkot 55b)

Our services for Simchat Torah tonight will be relatively small small and intimate as always. Our time in the Sukkah is over, but we will celebrate the the gift of our most welcome and treasured ushpizin ( our honored guest), Hashem, Our King. I thought this is a wonderful metaphor. Sometimes we invite the whole family, but at other times it is important to be with the most immediate family only – a more intimate celebration.

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