Bringing The Cycle To An End

The end of the fall holiday season looks forward to redemption.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.).

We have seen that there are two kinds of time--historical time, which marks progress, and cyclic time, which is marked by recurring patterns. Historical time is centered in the High Holiday festival cycle. Cyclic time is found in the three pilgrimage festivals. Sukkot is the end of the pilgrimage cycle, and yet, by its placement in the year, also brings to a close the High Holiday cycle. Seemingly, then, Sukkot comes at the end of both kinds of time.

Redemption is Sukkot's theme and as such it answers the great question of Yom Kippur: Are we forgiven? Yet Sukkot only promises redemption and thus reflects an underlying uncertainty that bespeaks a cruel reality. Since redemption still has not come, Sukkot continues to signify our status as wanderers lost in the desert.

simchat torah Despite Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, most of us are still far away from each other and the Other. Despite the liberation of Pesach and the revelation of Shavuot, we do not end the pilgrimage festival cycle by entering the Promised Land; we are left wandering as the Promised Land eludes our grasp. On Sukkot, we rejoice with our lulav and etrog, imbued with a sense of relief, security, and joy now that the penitential days are over, and yet we sit in our sukkot, those temporary dwellings, open to the winds of time--both kinds of time.

If Sukkot brings both cycles to a close, it does so by looking toward the end of time and the final redemption. Sukkot's haftarah [prophetic reading], from the prophet Zechariah [chapter 14:1-21], describes how in the future all the nations will go up to Jerusalem in peace to worship the Lord on the holiday of Sukkot.

To understand Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we must go back a bit. The seven days of Passover are followed by the 49 (7 X 7) of the omer, climaxing with the 50th day of Shavuot. Thus liberation is linked with revelation and the giving of the Torah. The experience of receiving the Torah is awesome. It is characterized by boundaries set around the mountain and a sound so terrible that the people flee. The mountain looms threateningly over their heads. There are no joyful outbursts at Sinai, only fear and anticipation. The experience concludes with the people's acceptance of the Torah and the Covenant.

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are preceded by Sukkot, again seven days followed by one day, but here there is no intervening period as there is between Pesach and Shavuot. Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day--that is, the day after seven. Seven, being a perfect number in Judaism, signifies a complete unit of time--each week ends with the seventh day, Shabbat. Thus, the eighth day is the day after time. It is the end of both kinds of time. It is thus not just the promise of redemption but the actual moment of it. God said, "Remain with me [atzeret] an extra day," a time beyond time.

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.