Like many people, I grew up with a beautiful Yom Kippur break-fast. Immediately after the end of services, my family would drive over to our family friends, the Rubinfelds. Rivka, the matriarch, always had out a delicious spread of bagels and lox and whitefish and rugelach. I remember the acidic sting of orange juice in my parched mouth, and the sensation of it landing at the bottom of my empty stomach. (I also remember that the radio was always on during the day at the Rubinfeld house, ever since 1973. Rivka is Israeli.)
My own children haven’t grown up with this ritual, which I regret. A big reason why is that in the early years of our family life, I was a rabbi with institutional responsibilities. I oversaw three simultaneous services on campus at Northwestern University. And, being a younger man than I am now, not only did I give sermons at all of them and co-lead the Reform service, I also timed things such that I could lead Musaf and Ne’ilah myself at the Orthodox service, my home base. By the end of it all, I was so exhausted that I could barely move. The kids were little, and it became easiest for them to just go home and for me to make my way there eventually. Break-fast became a bowl of cereal.
But like most things, there was a silver lining. After everyone had hurried out to go to their break-fasts, I remember lingering in the room that served as our little shul. It was just me and the room. I still had on my kittel, the white robe I had worn for most of the last 25 hours. And in that empty room, I could still sense the energy and life force we had generated and shared, the songs we had sung, the heartfelt prayers we had offered. The room was empty, and yet it was full—not in a nostalgic way, but in some way that was both present and absent at the same time.
My podcast this week, devoted to the holiday of Shemini Atzeret that we observe this Shabbat, is about lingering. The Talmud imagines the Holy One saying to the people of Israel something to the effect of, “We’ve had such a wonderful time together these last weeks. Stay one more day.” Hence Shemini Atzeret has no particular mitzvot: no sukkah or lulav, no matzah, no shofar. Just being. Or, perhaps, lingering—just as I was somehow moved to do at the end of Yom Kippur years ago.
The way the calendar works out this year, Shemini Atzeret is the day on which we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, also sometimes spelled Qohelet). One of the reasons we read this book at this time of year, I believe, is that it reflects this mood—a combination of spiritual groundedness, wistfulness at the passage of time, the sensibility of taking it all in after “the long season of tending and growth” in the words of Marge Piercy, aware that it will fade and pass and arise again. In this, Kohelet’s mood is not unlike a kind of posture we cultivate in mindfulness meditation as we bring awareness to the life-giving sensation of breath entering our nostrils and lungs, and then fading as we breathe back out into the world.
Breath, one way to translate the word hevel in Hebrew, is a—perhaps the—central metaphor in Qohelet. As Rabbi Audbrey Glazer writes in the introduction to the stunning new translation and commentary of Qohelet he developed with Rabbi Martin Cohen, “Hevel… manifests a ‘qualified optimism’ such that awareness of the evanescent feeling of life as vapor enables a deeper cultivation of joy! ‘Enjoy life, for not only injustice, but everything, is contingent.’ By enjoying the passing pleasures from moment to moment, we can deepen our appreciation of the nature of being amidst its evanescence. Such awareness then further reveals its own glimmers of deeper light that wash over the present.”
We have traveled a long journey these last months—in fact, this entire last year: A journey through Torah (we start all over this week!), through the holiday cycle, through the seasons, through natural rhythms of birth, growth, and life, dying, death, and decay. Shemini Atzeret, this final moment on the journey, invites us to breathe, to delight in our awareness, and to start the cycle anew with, hopefully, a deeper sense of loving interconnection (hesed), a greater capacity for compassion (rachamim), a refined attunement to true joy (simcha), and an expanded quality of wholeness and peace (shalom) within, between, and all around us. May it be so.