Lighting Your Light
“And the light of Israel will become fire, and the Holy One, blessed is He, will become flame.” Isaiah 10:17
Life is a continuous spiral reflected in the physical world. In fact, in the Milky Way, the constellations all contain spiral shapes as we also see on Earth in snails, storms, cyclones, the structures of proteins and seeds, DNA, and marine coral, etc. Everything has the structure of a spiral.
When God created the world, He did nothing at random; so this form, the spiral, is constantly returning to its origins at increasing levels. On the intellectual and spiritual plane, they seem to happen within life’s vicious cycles…from birth to growth and development, to reproduction and finally death.
Once more, we have reached the end of a cycle of reading the Torah, before the beginning of a new cycle after Sukkot and the completion of Moshe’s life.
Even though we are commanded to rejoice during Sukkoth, our family has experienced some sad and even tragic moments. A very dear friend died from COVID-19 two years ago this week and our 13-year-old dog, Nala also died, leaving us with a void at home, not to mention the tears of my wife and children. Then, I personally went through some difficult times in my extended family – in the relationship between my parents and siblings, making it all the more difficult to a message for this Shabbat.
But that’s what life is about; Israel spent 40 years going around in circles ( cycles-spirals) in the desert. I wonder how often they felt that their lives were meaningless. Can a human being who is spinning in circles, staying in the same place, find flavor in his life?
The readings of Shemini Atzeret tell us about the culmination of Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths, during which the people brought seventy offerings for the seventy nations of the earth and once they had completed the work for humanity, they turned to the holiday in Bamidbar (Numbers) 29: 35: “On the eighth day (Shemini) you will celebrate a special assembly (Atzeret), and no one will do any type of work.”
Max Kaufman teaches that the number eight is a symbol of anything one step above the natural order, higher than nature itself with its limitations. If we put into perspective that we have been striving to be a light to the nations (70 offerings on behalf of the entire world), now, on the eighth day, God wants to have a “special appointment” with us. As we read, there is no type of “requirement or something special to do” on Shemini Atzeret; the only thing we are ordered to do is to celebrate it. In other words, it is a special day dedicated to deepening our relationship with God from our inner being (our kishkes, our trepas), without interruptions, like work. It’s a day of intimacy.
On Sukkoth, we detach ourselves from material things; we live outdoors, we have a fruit-based meal and are more in contact with nature. It’s like detaching ourselves from material ties in order to reconnect with God’s creation. And now on Shemini Atzeret, we are not asked to celebrate in a Sukkah, rather it is at a higher level, as we maintain and balance the material world with an intimate relationship with the Creator.
I believe that, unlike other faiths, biblical Judaism does not teach us to live a life of asceticism or disconnected from the material, sinful and immoral world around us. It would be relatively easier to lead a spiritual life if we distance ourselves from the real world or ignore relationships in a world created to be a collective. Rather, the Torah teaches us that we must learn to live the commandments in an imperfect and perhaps impure world, while firmly maintaining our relationship with God, and sensitizing ourselves to observe God at every moment, in every person, in every detail, event or experience. Do you remember what God showed Kefa in a vision regarding relationships with other human beings? This is what He said to him: “What God has purified, do not call impure” (Acts 10:14-16).
According to author Simcha BenYosef regarding intimacy, there are three levels of comprehension: “knowledge, love, and passionate bond.” He explains from Devarim 4:24: “For Adonai, your God is a consuming fire” and Devarim 4: 4 teaches us “Only those among you who remained united with the Eternal your God are alive today.”
Following these ideas, we can learn a little more about the “eighth day” (shemini); we could say that this is a “mystical”, supernatural time by relating the number eight to the covenant of circumcision (performed on the 8th day), to special miracles like Hanukkah, celebrated for 8 days, to the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Chet (ח), which represents life (chai – חַי-), to the Cohen Hagadol who wore 8 priestly garments (tunic, breeches, mitre, sash, breastplate, ephod, outer tunic and pectoral), to the Cohen who changed his clothing 8 times on Yom Kippur, to 8 Tzitzit (Devarim 22:12), to the 8 types of anointing oil, and as we read in our Haftarah, to the eighth day, the culmination of the dedication of the temple, with great rejoicing in the nation of Israel. That means that today is a very special day.
By combining all these ideas, we have the perfect components for a special occasion – the date, an eighth day that is supernatural, and the desire of the Eternal to form a bond with us and restart a new cycle. As we read at the beginning, we have the flame (which is God), and the combustion (the passionate bond), and if we add in our effort, we can form a bond that leads us to become fire, as Isaiah says.
Life is a spiral; yes, with its ups and downs, joys and discouragements, solitude and companionship, health and illness, wealth and poverty, with joy and tears, instability and peace, with knowledge and ignorance, none of it matters. On whatever side of the scale we are, let us remember Devarim 29:9 -13: “You are all present today before the LORD, your God…..to enter into the covenant of the LORD, your God, and into the oath that the Eternal, your God, celebrates with you today.” Do we want to enter in? Today, not yesterday or tomorrow; today is the day when the doors of Heaven are open. All cycles generate these emotions – excitement at the beginning, melancholy or sadness at the end – but we do not live by emotions, we live as the prophet Habakkuk said in chap. 2: 4, “The just shall live by emunah (faith).” My hope is that as we conclude this cycle of Moedim, we begin a new and happy cycle of life and of reading the Torah.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach
Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek