I remember the dialogue session well, although it took place more than 45 years ago. Two respected, learned Jewish scholars, who been study partners (chevruta) at the yeshiva in New York, came together in Cleveland, where I grew up, for a Shabbat afternoon presentation during the Festival of Sukkot. One of them was then a leading Orthodox rabbi and day school principal, the other was my congregation’s Reform rabbi. As old friends, they reminisced a little, told anecdotes about each other and their youthful days, and, as friends tend to do, they argued a lot. It was a debate l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of heaven.” The conversation moved quickly: from stories of the Hasidim to Biblical criticism, the credibility of cultural versus political Zionism, how the Jewish community should respond to American civil rights issues, and our responsibilities to Soviet Jewry and isolated or persecuted communities around the world.
The hour grew late and people prepared to leave the temple’s library. But one voice pleaded, “Can’t we continue this a while longer? For this a real Sukkat Shalom, a beautiful shelter of peace and friendship!” And another voice (was it mine?) began to sing a supporting lyric from a then-popular song: “Why don’t you stay, just a little bit longer?”
Smiling broadly, one of the rabbis (I don’t remember which) restarted the dialogue by paraphrasing Rashi: what is the basis for Shemini Atzeret at the end of the 7-day Sukkot Festival? It’s almost as if God is politely requesting the Jewish people to “stay, just a little bit longer” after Rosh HasShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The Eternal One has “seen” so much of us lately, that it will be difficult to be without us. And Rashi interprets the Torah’s verses about the 8th day of Sukkot as if God is saying: “Your leaving is hard for Me; please, stay one more day!”
But back on that Shabbat during Sukkot in Cleveland, the second rabbi (I don’t remember which) gave a further interpretation of this thought, which came back to me this year. In the Midrash, God admits: “It is so hard for Me to see you leave.” But it could also be legitimately translated as: “It is so hard for Me to see you separated from each other!” Shemini Atzeret should stand against divisiveness and conflict in our community, but also an acknowledgement of how difficult it is for all of us to be so physically separated from each other, in these sad days of COVID-19. Shemini Atzeret, as the concluding act of our Sukkot Festival, must be a gesture toward solidarity and togetherness, even while we’re distant.
My rabbis continued their dialogue, excitedly building upon each other’s words and passion. All of us know the famous Talmudic story of the prospective proselyte who wants Hillel (after first questioning Shammai, as well) to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot (regel). But did we remember that regel also means holiday or pilgrimage? Perhaps the proselyte was asking the true reason for this regel, for the Torah does not actually give us a reason in the text. So the kind, gentle and wise Hillel answers with the familiar phrase, “what is hateful to you, do not do to others.” In other words, let us remove those barriers to our relationships which further the distances between us — as much as we can, giving respect to health and safety considerations. Even God is saying that this “separation is very difficult for Me!”
In this New Year of 5781, let us recognize how hard it is for God to “see” us leaving the Divine Presence, especially in our Season of Joy (Sukkot). And let us also be reminded that it is as painful for the Holy One as it is for us to be separated from one another. In whichever ways we can, let us creatively work towards the establishment of our community as a Sukkat Shalom for all of us.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.