I wanted to write about so many good things happening in the school, about student-led activities fueled with ruach and chesed, about the beauty of the Jewish holidays and the power of a great Jewish education. I wanted to write about the students in grades 6/7 who on Thursday were honoured and excited to host more than twenty seniors of the Kehila Society of Richmond in the school sukkah for some learning, activities and tea and desserts. How it was really quite special to see the students so actively involved with the seniors, talking and sharing with them, serving them tea and desserts, and overall just having such a nice time with them – how you got such a sense of pride and naches in how nicely the students are growing up.
I wanted to write about today’s Tishrei Assembly, and the beautiful moments of the students entering the gymnasium with a Torah to chants of Torah tziva lanu Moshe, of the small bright faces singing Shanah Tovah to their parents and grandparents, and of how they all stood together under a tallit canopy held up by parents as the Torah was read to them.
And I could have done it, and pretended that it’s all beautiful, it’s all good. But that would have been tone deaf, and a poor reflection of what it means to be a Jew in this day and age. Because as I am writing this, I keep on reading story after story of the awful murder of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin who were were shot to death by terrorists late Thursday in Israel while driving in their car (on their way home after celebrating Sukkot with friends). Their children — aged 4 months, 4, 7 and 9 — who were in the backseat of the car were unharmed.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in today’s Times of Israel, writes that “… the brutal murder of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin in the presence of their four young children has shocked us all. It is hard to enter the spirit of zeman simchatenu, our festival of joy, in the midst of such lacerating grief… We ask, Zu Torah vezu sechorah, is this the Torah and this its reward? But we know better than to wait for an answer. In the end all we can do is to join the bereaved in our prayers.”
He continues on and writes: “At the end of his life Moses set out the great choice faced not just by Jews but by humanity as a whole: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your children may live.'” And I know that he’s right, of course, that we need to give our children and our students all the tools and the skills and the love and the passion for Judaism to choose life, especially in a world that can be so dark – it’s why we do what we do and it’s why families make the financial sacrifice to send their children to a Jewish Day School.
But… here’s what I am also thinking and feeling, and here is my question for Hashem (and please bear with me and my train of thought) – the day after Sukkot is actually a separate biblical holiday, called Shmini Atzeret, found in the Torah in Vayikrah 23:36:
שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, תַּקְרִיבוּ אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה; בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה, עֲצֶרֶת הִוא–כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ.
“Seven days ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD; on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD; it is a day of solemn assembly; ye shall do no manner of servile work.”
Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, and specifically on the deeper meaning of the word atzeret, “עֲצֶרֶת “, explains that “It shall be a solemn assembly.” [God says]: I have detained you in the manner of a king who had invited his children to feast with him for a designated number of days. When the time came for them to depart, he said: ‘My children, please remain with me for one more day, for it is difficult for me to part from you.’”
Shemini Atzeret as it is thus understood is really the only meal (or festival) dedicated to the very personal relationship between God and the Jewish people. Hashem is saying to us: “I want a real relationship with you – spend a little more time with Me, before you go back to work and life.”
To which I say: OK Hashem, fair enough – you want a real relationship with us? Fine, then we get to be real with you, and honest with you. You want us to spend a bit more time in your sukkah? You want us to be b’simcha? This is our happiness? This is our zman simchateinu, our time of joy? This is what you want from us? Year after year, century after century, that we sit a while longer in your sukkah and in ours, that we
cling choose life time after time, massacre after massacre, neshama-destroying brutality after neshama-destroying brutality.
Zman simchateinu… really?