Commentary for Shmini Atzeret

24 Sep

The Torah reading for Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot, seems to be a generic holiday reading, mostly shared with the last days of both Passover and Shavuot. Deut. 15:19 – 16:17 is a general list of the pilgrimage holidays and their specific sacrifices and other laws of their observances. As far as Torah readings go, this section is particularly short. So short, in fact, that if the last day of Passover or Shavuot falls on Shabbat and seven aliyot are required instead of five, we need to add Deut. 14:22 – 15:18 to the reading in order to be able to create seven aliyot with logical ending points. On Shmini Atzeret, however, we read this long, seemingly extraneous portion about the treatment of the poor and the settling of debts for the Sabbatical year no matter which day of the week Shmini Atzeret falls.
The major ritual event of Shmini Atzeret is the special prayer for rain added into the Musaf Amidah. During this prayer we ask God to provide us with water for crops for the upcoming year and invoke the names of our ancestors so that if our deeds have not been good enough to merit a good year, God might show us kindness on their merits.

Water plays multiple roles in the Torah. It is a resource that is fought over for the simple purposes of survival and economic power, and it is used as a libation as part of the sacrifices on Sukkot. It can be used as an implement of destruction, as in the cases of the Noah’s Flood or the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, but it is also present in many of the important acts of kindness found in the Torah.

When Abraham, ninety-nine years old and recovering from circumcising himself, sees three strangers wandering in the desert on an especially hot day, he insists that they come rest in his tent and not only does he bring them food and drink, but also water to wash the uncomfortable, hot sand off their feet with. This is the first recorded act of kindness to a stranger. When Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac, it is Rebecca’s kindness and generosity, letting Eliezer have as much water as he wanted, rather than just the sip that he asked for, and even offering to draw water for his camels as well, that draws him to her.

To escape Pharaoh’s decree that all male Israelite babies be executed, Moses’ mother sends him in a basket down the Nile. Upon seeing the child, Pharaoh’s daughter decides to save his life and raise him as her own, despite knowing that he is an Israelite child and that her father has decreed his death. When he arrives in Midian after his flight from Egypt, the first thing Moses does is defend Jethro’s daughters from a group of shepherds who accost them at the local well.

On Shmini Atzeret, when we pray for water to sustain us for the coming year, we read not just about the laws of the holidays, but about what we must do with the sustenance that water will brings us in order to be worthy of the gift we are receiving from God. We learn to be generous to the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, to forgive debts at the Sabbatical, and to release indentured servants with a fair severance package so that they will not immediately wind up in servitude again. We learn from our ancestors’ examples of kindness so that we will not have to rely on their merits to pray for water, but will be able to do so on the merit of our own kindness.

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