For the last year, I have been studying liturgy with Sherril Gilbert (formerly the only k’li kodesh in Newfoundland and Labrador and now the founder of B’nai Or of Montreal). We are currently learning about Hallel and read the following:
“There are twelve days in the year when a flute was played [when the Levites sang during the offering of a sacrifice]. These are when the first and second pascal lambs were offered, on the first day of Passover, on the holiday of atzeret, and on the eight days of the holiday.” (Talmud Bavli Arachin 10a)
Today, atzeret is usually preceded by the word sh’mini / eighth and refers to the last day of Sukkot. However, in this mishnah, atzeret must refer to some other day since all the days of Sukkot are accounted for. “He-chag / the Holiday” in the Talmud always refers to Sukkot and the mishnah lists that holiday as having eight days.
Why is the eighth day of “the holiday” called Atzeret today? The most beautiful explanation I know is the following: The sacrifices offered during Sukkot were unique in that there was a different number of bulls each day. When we add up all these sacrifices during the seven days of Sukkot, we find that there were 70 of them. Traditionally, there are 70 nations in the world, so on Sukkot we fulfilled our priestly function and offered a sacrifice for each nation of the world. Further, there is a tradition that representatives of other peoples came to Jerusalem for Sukkot and then left after the seventh day. So it is as though God, the ultimate ba’al ha-bayit / householder, invites us to stay one more day, just the immediate family as it were, and eat leftovers and have a quiet party together before going home to beat the rains. Atzeret, holding back, not leaving or finishing until the last step is complete.
So what is the atzeret of Pesach? The only major holiday unaccounted for in the mishnah is Shavu’ot, called here the atzeret. Because Sukkot comes just before the rains, the atzeret is immediate since travel became riskier once the rains began. In the spring, this is not the issue and so the atzeret waits for “eighth day” which here follows not immediately after the seven days of Pesach, but after seven times seven days, seven weeks, what we now call the counting of the omer.
What’s important here is to understand that, in a sense, Shavu’ot is not a separate holiday but rather the conclusion of Pesach. Historically speaking, the Exodus isn’t complete until its purpose is revealed. Redemption from slavery to other human beings must be replaced by a voluntary commitment to becoming the servants of the Holy One of Blessing, or maybe better the junior partners of the Holy One in completing the creation by revealing its purpose.
Standing at Sinai every year is not just about finding one’s personal Torah for the coming twelve months, though that is certainly a beautiful way of making revelation immediate and present. It is also, just as much, maybe even more, about affirming and re-affirming our shared commitment to being part of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people which helps channel the spiritual aspirations of all people, which provides a model of how every person can live an ordinary life in the world and dedicate it to the extraordinary and transcendent.
How we do that is the Torah we receive and help to create each year. What a holy task that is, especially in these times of great change and great danger. So I look forward to standing at Sinai, not just on my own, but with all of you.
In one of the very early editions of Moment Magazine, I remember this story:
A young Jew approaches an older person in Haifa and says, with enthusiasm and familiarity, “Shalom Aleichem, Shalom Aleichem.” The older person looks at this young Jew and says back, “Aleichem Shalom. Do I know you?” “Of course,” the young person responds, “We met at Sinai. Don’t you remember?” “Oh, of course,” the older person answers. “It was so noisy and crowded that day, I almost didn’t remember you. How have you been?”