There is a poignant midrash that offers an explanation for why the holiday of Sukkot is extended one more day by the addition of Shmini Atzeret, a holiday with no specific mitzvot attached to it. The midrash imagines God as a king whose children are about to depart after a pleasurable visit. He implores them to stay one more day, saying, "Your departure is hard on me." This midrash always strikes me as the Jewish equivalent of an email that's going around these days: "If God had a refrigerator, your photo would be on the door."
I had my own "Your departure is hard on me" this summer. My kids and little grandkids came in from Israel for a visit that was too brief. We planned a major but manageable activity for each day, and on the two Shabbats of their stay, we invited extended family. It was a boisterous, chaotic, joyful time -- which made the contrast of their departure all the more dismal.
The three younger grandkids waved us a cheerful goodbye at the airport, but the six-year-old got teary and lowered his head, unable to look us in the eye. He understood that this leave-taking was no "See you later." The "later" this time was going to be Passover, eight months hence. By that time, the baby won't remember us, and the two-year-old, who didn't let go my hand for two weeks, will need a little re-acquainting.
The pain of parting is a commensurate measure of the pleasure of reuniting.
I guess if we didn't get along so well, their departure would be more cavalier. The pain of parting is a commensurate measure of the pleasure of reuniting.
During our separations the phone conversations go like this... Me: "Hi, Sweetie, It's Mom. How was Shabbat?" My daughter: "Hi, Mom. It was -- OMIGOSH. I gotta go! Binyomin, put down that hammer right NOW!!!"
The webcam is no better. My daughter: "Who wants to see Savta on the webcam? OMIGOSH. Shlomo, a carpet tack is not a dessert!" As a result, our conversations are not very long, but we are in constant contact. My husband and I feel that they are reminded weekly of who we are, and occasionally, when the kids are asleep, my daughter and I have lengthy heart-to-hearts.
In a way, those conversations parallel my prayers. They are a tad rushed during the week, but on Shabbat and holidays I have a chance to slow down. I thank God for all the good things in my life and implore Him to keep everyone safe and sound. I have little points of contact all week long and on special occasions I get to have a real talk with my Heavenly Father.
But Sukkot is even better than a phone call. It's an actual visit. During the holiday of Sukkot we get to sit with God in the Sukkah. The closeness is akin to when my family comes to visit me in my home. And the end of Sukkot is similar to that trip to the airport to send my children and the grandkids back to their home in Israel.
The good times together are soooo good that the separations are almost unbearable.
The good times together are soooo good that the separations are almost unbearable. So that midrash resonates with me, especially as the holiday ends. Sukkot is no different from those family visits. After all, God misses us the way we miss distant loved ones.
Maimonides describes how we should long for God's presence as we do for a loved one. And the feeling is mutual. If we spend Sukkot sharing meals with family, talking and singing together in the Sukkah we can create indelible memories that carry us -- and our Heavenly Father -- over until the next time we can get together.
Shmini HaAtzeret -- the "holdover" holiday -- is devoted entirely to our encounter with God, with no mediating mitzvot. It's pure connectivity. Your departure is hard on me. But that's because our time together is so very, very precious.