Rushing into Stillness

As I am experiencing my first summer in Seattle, I have to say - everyone was right, this is glorious! What a beautiful season. People seem to make up for the relative lack of water coming from the sky by swimming or kayaking or paddle boarding in the lakes and seas around us. And the abundant sun does seem to energize a remarkable amount of activity. Whether we are enjoying the outdoors or adventuring out of city, state, or country, summer sparkles with motion.

As I am experiencing my first summer in Seattle, I have to say - everyone was right, this is glorious! What a beautiful season. People seem to make up for the relative lack of water coming from the sky by swimming or kayaking or paddle boarding in the lakes and seas around us. And the abundant sun does seem to energize a remarkable amount of activity. Whether we are enjoying the outdoors or adventuring out of city, state, or country, summer sparkles with motion.

I returned from staffing a Honeymoon Israel trip a little over a week ago, a trip that left me breathless with constant motion. When I landed, coughing and tired, I discovered I had come down with COVID, and was forced to isolate for over a week at home. One day, frenzied group touring, the next, just lying in bed. The contrast was startling.

Reading about the Sukkot rituals had a strange resonance for me, coming out of this high-contrast experience. The Torah describes this pilgrimage festival (a time when many people would make the journey to the Temple in Jerusalem). For each of the seven days of Sukkot, they make special offerings. It sounds like quite the social gathering, a sacred hubbub. But then, the Torah adds a mysterious eighth day. “On the eighth day, you shall hold an atzeret; you shall not work at your occupations” (Numbers 29:35). Although a few extra sacrificial offerings are described, the reason for appending this day to the week of Sukkot is left unclear.

Luckily, Rashi offers a number of ways to understand what this atzeret is.

  1. [The root of atzeret means “stop” - ] you are restricted in the doing of work.

  2. Restrict yourselves from leaving Jerusalem: this teaches that this requires that they should remain in Jerusalem overnight (that the pilgrims should not immediately after the seven days of Sukkot begin the journey homeward) (from Sifrei Bamidbar 151:1)
  3. And an explanation of it in the Aggadah is: because on all the seven days of the Festival they offered sacrifices corresponding in number to the seventy nations of the world, and they propose then to set forth on their way home, the Omnipresent says to them: “I beg of you make a small banquet for Me, so that I may have some pleasure from you exclusively” (from Talmud Sukkah 55b).

Rashi’s answers reveal that we don’t really understand why atzeret exists. His first explanation just unpacks the word itself and ties it to the instruction in the verse not to work. That doesn’t get at why we shouldn’t work on the day. His second explanation gives us a why - it would be religiously rude to leave at the first opportunity as soon as one’s obligations are over. Of course, this doesn’t apply to other holidays, so why here at Sukkot?

So his third explanation solves the dilemma and gives us what I think of as the ultimate introvert party. According to rabbinic tradition, the offerings on Sukkot are done on behalf of all the nations of the world. In other words, the people offering them are doing so as imagined delegates of everyone else in the world. (There’s a lot to unpack there about the appropriateness of doing religious rituals on behalf of people of other religions who aren’t present, but let’s set that aside for now.) The Talmud perceives that God wants an extra moment that isn’t about anyone else, just the Israelites and their Beloved. It is an afterparty of sorts, a quiet moment where we stop ourselves from attaching to the activities Out There and just settle into being present with Right Here. Shmini Atzeret (the eighth day when we stop) is a festival of contemplative practice.

So like my abrupt transition from go-go-go to stop-stop-stop, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret combine extremes in an unusual way. Perhaps this is some wisdom we can glean about cultivating both activity and pause, noisy and quiet, action and contemplation, togetherness and solitude.

I know some of us are living in Shmini Atzeret time as an ongoing experience, sheltering from this pandemic because of concerns about immune system, or isolated for other reasons. Many of us are juggling the non-stop demands and delights of work, school, parenting, travel, and home crafting. One thing after another. All of us need connection that pierces through the noises in life and emerges out of the silences in life. Author Cole Arthur Riley, creator of Black Liturgies, has a remarkable book out now called This Here Flesh. She writes,

“My spirituality has always been given to contemplation, even before anyone articulated for me what ‘the contemplative’ was… From a young age, my siblings and I were allowed to travel deep into our interior worlds to become aware of ourselves, our loves, our beliefs. And still, my father demanded an unflinching awareness of our exterior worlds. Where is home from here? What was the waitress’s name? Where do we look when we’re walking? If a single phrase could be considered the mantra of our family, it would be Pay attention…"

“I wrote this book during the fall and winter of 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. When I am finished, I will be in my fifteenth month of isolation, as I am one of the many immunocompromised who cannot test my fate with this virus. Apart from my husband, my days are spent in solitude, in a kind of silence and stillness. It has reminded me what an empty spiritual life will manifest from these virtues alone (silence and stillness). I cannot sustain belief on my own. And I’m learning sometimes the most sacred thing to do is shout.”

Riley weaves us in and out of the exterior world and the interior world. Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. Her dual lessons of “pay attention” and “sometimes the most sacred thing to do is shout” strike me as useful, and easy to practice.

As we approach Shabbat (a word that comes from the root “to cease”), may you balance motion and stillness, action and contemplation, in the ways that work best for you. And if you need someone to respond to or simply witness your shouting, let me or Rabbi Rachel know! We are just a call away.

Shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Jay LeVine