What is Shmini Atzeret really about? Why do we need an extra day of yomtov? The Midrash offers a wonderful suggestion. God is reluctant to let us go, the Midrash explains, and we are reluctant to let go of God, so we continue on for another day, before embarking on the long winter until the spring, when the festival season starts again with Pesach.
In California we don’t have cold winters. In fact, being a weatherman in California is probably the best job on the planet. How wrong can you ever be? Although, I remember how my late father used to say, with a twinkle in his eye, that he wished he had become a weatherman. In what other line of work can one be so consistently wrong and still keep your job?
I don’t know if the following story is true – but it really could be. One year, in late October, a tribe of Native Americans on a remote reservation asked their chief if the coming winter was going to be very cold or if it would only be mild. The truth was he had absolutely no idea – but he couldn’t let them know that. He was meant to be the expert, his people’s oracle. Just to be on the safe side, he told his tribe that the winter was going to be cold and they should collect plenty of firewood so that they were totally prepared.
But the chief wanted to ensure that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself. After a few days he drove to a public phone far away from the reservation village and called the National Weather Service to ask them if the winter ahead was going to be cold.
“Yes, according to our information it looks like this coming winter is going to be cold,” the meteorologist told him. Feeling vindicated, the chief went back to his village and told the tribesmen to collect more firewood.
The following week he called the National Weather Service again, anonymously of course. “Does it still look like we are going to have a very cold winter?” he asked. The man at National Weather Service was firm – “Yes, it’s going to be a very cold winter this year.”
So, once again the chief went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of firewood they could find. Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service one last time, just to be completely sure.
“Are you absolutely positive this winter is going to be super cold?” he asked. “Oh, absolutely,” was the response, “in fact it looks like it is going to be one of the coldest winters we’ve ever had.”
“Really? But how can you be so sure?” the chief asked.
The weatherman paused for a moment. “It’s simple,” he said, “we’re absolutely sure it’s going to be freezing cold this year because we’ve heard that the Native Americans are collecting firewood like crazy!”
Shemini Atzeret feels like a yomtov where everyone is clueless about what’s going on, and we are all looking for some kind of guidance from somewhere – anywhere! – as to what we should be doing. Like the Native American chief asking the meteorologist, and the meteorologist looking for clues from the Native Americans – it’s almost as if we are going around in circles to work out the facts regarding Shmini Atzeret. But what is the truth about Shmini Atzeret? What indeed should we be doing on Shmini Atzeret?
In one of his most striking stories, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov describes a poor Jewish tailor living in Ukraine who persistently had the same dream – that there was a treasure buried in Vienna at the foot of a bridge over the Danube River. The problem was, he had never been to Vienna, nor even Austria – he lived in a little village in Ukraine, and had never ventured more than a few miles from his home. But after the same dream kept reoccurring, he eventually told his wife, adding that he wanted to go to Vienna to find the treasure. She looked at him for a moment, and said: “well, if you had the dream so many times it must be true, the treasure must be there – just go and find it!”
The tailor travelled to Vienna – and sure enough he finds the bridge he had seen in his dream. But there was a problem – the exact spot where the treasure is buried in his dream, in the real world is guarded by two fierce looking soldiers. Not sure what to do, he hovers around the area for a couple of days, waiting for the soldiers to go off on a lunch break or something, so that he can dig for the treasure. But the soldiers find his loitering a bit strange, so they summarily arrest him and bring him in for questioning.
“What are you doing at the bridge? Are you a Russian spy?”
“You will never believe me if I tell you what I’m doing here,” he tells them.
“Try us!” they reply.
So he tells them about his dream, and explains that he is there to find the buried treasure. The soldiers burst out laughing. Still chuckling, one of them says to the tailor: “Do you know something? Last night I had a dream that under the house of a Jewish tailor in some little village in Ukraine there is a fabulous treasure. Do you think I’m going to go all the way to Ukraine to find it?” And they let him go.
The tailor journeys home, and as soon as he gets back digs under his house – just to see, maybe the soldier’s dream was right after all. Remarkably, after digging for a few minutes, he discovers a fabulous treasure buried right under his house.
This story is Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s way of conveying something to us that we all already know. Whatever we do and wherever we go looking to find that treasure, the real treasure is always really inside us. It is not buried in Vienna, or anywhere else, it is right in the heart of our lives. We just need to realize that and dig it up.
Ellul, Rosh Hashana, Aseret Yemey Teshuva, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shofar, Apples, Honey, Davening, Fasting, Lulav, Etrog, sitting in the sukka – all of these things are very important, but at the same time they are also all very distracting. It’s a roller-coaster. We need a bit of time to reflect, to remember, to savor. In fact, we need a time that is specifically designated for digging up the treasure that is already underneath our own house, so that we can use the strength it has given us to keep us going through the winter months, until Pesach – when the whole cycle starts up again. That is what Shmini Atzeret is all about.