Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Shavuot and Shemini Atseret - Two of A Kind (II)

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In the previous post, we identified five noteworthy characteristics that Shavuot and Shemini Atseret have in common. What is the reason for their strong resemblance?

The Ramban, in his commentary to Leviticus 23:36, offers a cryptic explanation for the holiday of Shemini Atseret:

According to the way of truth: For in six days did Hashem create the Heavens and the Earth; the seventh day is Shabbat and has no partner, and the Congregation of Israel is its partner, as it is written "and the Earth"; and behold, she is eighth. "It is an Atseret", for there everything is stopped (Heb. netsar hakol). And He commanded regarding the Festival of Matsot seven days with holiness before and after them, for they are totally holy with Hashem in their midst, and count from it forty nine days, seven weeks like the days of the world, and sanctify the eighth day like the eighth day of Sukkot - the counted days in between are like the Intermediate Days of the festival between the first and eight days of Sukkot - and that is the day of the giving of the Torah on which He showed them His great fire and they heard His voice from the fire. Therefore, the Rabbis always call Shavuot "Atseret", because it is like the eighth day of Sukkot which the Torah calls "Atseret"...

This statement of the Ramban is quite mysterious, but I believe we can still derive a tremendous insight from it. The key distinction he introduces is between the number seven - which, as he points out, is a reference to the seven days of creation in Genesis - and the number eight, which he understands as a symbolic reference to the Congregation of Israel.

Although he is deliberately obscure, it seems that the Ramban is therefore suggesting that the holidays that fall on "eighth" days - i.e., Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, which follow the seven-day holidays - are associated with the metaphysical identity of the Jewish people, whereas the seven-day holidays themselves are linked to the material world.

This simple observation has the potential to account for several of the unique properties of Shemini Atseret and Shavuot that we mentioned in the last post. But let us begin by considering the implications of this theory for the seven-day holidays that precede them.

Both Pesah and Sukkot relate primarily to our physical lives. On Pesah, we consume a new form of bread, and on Sukkot we eat and sleep in a new 'home' environment. Both holidays address our bodily existence and elevate our awareness of Hashem through the introduction of special mitsvot that "interfere" with our normal, physiologically-based routines. It is not unreasonable to say, then, that both Passover and Sukkot are holidays rooted in the "seven days of creation"; that is, they address us insofar as we are biological creatures, parts of the broader framework of the natural world.

By contrast, Shavuot and Shemini Atseret are related to the "Congregation of Israel" - our metaphysical, spiritual identity as human beings that distinguishes us from the rest of the created order and allows us to rise above it. The ultimate manifestation of this uniquely human capacity is the experience of revelation whereby we become cognizant of God's infinite wisdom. The product of that Divine encounter is the Torah, which is the focal point of both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret. Put simply, these holidays are related to the spiritual rather than the physical dimension of our existence.

This is the concept of the Jewish people being the "partner" of Shabbat. The universe displays Divine Wisdom with breathtaking elegance. However, absent a group of people who are dedicated to observing and reflecting upon that wisdom, it would never become fully actualized; it would remain, as it were, undiscovered. The Jewish people literally 'complete' the Universe by contemplating the beauty of its design every Shabbat.

Thus, we see that the Torah institutes two seven-day holidays, each of which is followed by a one-day "Atseret". The seven day holidays heighten our awareness of God by implementing changes in the physical aspects of our lifestyle - what or where we eat, etc. For these adjustments to really have an impact, they must be extended over an entire week's time. Sitting in a Sukkah or abstaining from leavened products for only one day would not make a significant difference in a person's life. Internalizing the message of these holidays is a gradual process; it takes a while for our minds to absorb the implications of what our bodies are doing.

However, the ultimate goal of all of these concrete behaviors is to prepare us for the apprehension of Hashem's truth with our highest faculties - our minds. When we reach this final stage, embodied in Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, we celebrate the actual achievement of a new intellectual plateau - either the experience of revelation at Sinai or the completion of our annual course of Torah study - rather than focusing on the gradual process of reaching that plateau. Consequently, these holidays are observed for a single day only, just like Shabbat. It goes without saying that no physical rituals are associated with these days because their theme is, by definition, metaphysical in nature.

In summary, then, Pesah and Sukkot serve to lay the material groundwork for the more transcendent celebrations of Shavuot and Shemini Atseret. And, of course, both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret center on our holy Torah, which represents the intellectual interface between human beings and their Creator.

Two major questions still remain. First of all, being that Shavuot and Shemini Atseret both revolve around Torah knowledge, celebrating both of the seems redundant. Why do we need two holidays dedicated to the same theme?

Second, if they are indeed so similar, why is Shavuot separated from Pesah by a stretch of 49 days? We know that, unlike Shavuot, Shemini Atseret is directly appended to the seven days of Sukkot - it is literally the eighth day of the holiday. What is the reason for the disparity between the structure of Passover-Shavuot and the structure of Sukkot-Shemini Atseret?

Stay tuned - in a post to follow shortly, I will suggest an answer to both of these questions that I think sheds light on the nature of the Jewish Holiday cycle as a whole.

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