By Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt
Succot is the time when we focus on experiencing happiness and joy. Not happy? Then Succot is the time to work on it. If you are happy, Succot is the time to take it to new levels.
The rabbis say, though, that Succot is not fully baked without Shemini Atzeret. It is the completion of the festival; the ultimate attainment of Succot joy.
How so? They explain with a beautiful story.
A king throws a week-long party for all his subjects. The week is over and the party has been wild fun. Now everyone is leaving. But the king asks his son to stay a day longer – so that they can have their own little private party when everyone has gone. This is the idea of Shemini Atzeret. The rabbis say that Succot is a festival that is for all to participate in – not just Jews.
During the Temple era, non-Jews offered sacrifices at our Temple during Succot. All were (and are) welcome. Succot, and its joy, are not exclusive to the Jewish people. We have no monopoly on happiness. But God turns to the Jewish people at the end of Succot and says: ‘Stay a day longer and let’s have our own private party.’ And the Jewish people stay. It is a day to celebrate our unique relationship with God.
One can have everything in this world – material possessions, health, success, children, love… but if one does not see a purpose to it all, then it becomes meaningless. And no matter how good life is, without meaning, a feeling of hollow emptiness will perpetually reverberate. In our society, rooted as it is in existential philosophy, it is easy to feel that life has no meaning.
There is hardly a human being in this world that has not, at some point in their life, woken up and asked themselves the question: ‘So what?… What’s the point of it all?’ If we do not have an answer to that question – and a good answer at that – whatever happiness we may experience will always feel skin deep.
Shemini Atzeret is the day that we answer the ‘So what?’ And the answer: Because, as a Jewish nation, we are here to make a difference. The world still very much needs us to struggle to bring it to Godliness.
This is because we live in a world of discord and pain, of anger and dissatisfaction – and because there is something that we can do about that if we care to put our minds and our hearts to it. We Jews are far from existentialists. Life is incredibly meaningful. And all the blessings that we have focused on during Succot are given a context on Shemini Atzeret.
In a world of such blessing, coupled with deep underlying meaning, the potential for happiness and joy is unlimited.
• Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt is the director of Tikun UK