For Jews, the End Is Never the End

October 12, 2020 | Chaim Steinmetz
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This past weekend Jews celebrated Shmini Atseret—the Eighth Day of Assembly—which concludes the weeks-long season of sacred days. According to an oft-cited parable explaining this holiday’s meaning, it represents God’s request that the Jewish people stay one extra day before “departing” from their extended “holiday visit.” Chaim Steinmetz subjects this parable to some scrutiny:

[H]ow will staying one more day make it easier to say goodbye? The problem of saying goodbye will come back the next day! [Rather], I think this Midrash is making a different point. By staying one more day beyond the end, we have demonstrated a significant truth: the end is not the end. With an extra day, the last day of Sukkot is no longer the last day of Sukkot. Shmini Atseret is actually an attack on the very notion of endings.

And Jews don’t believe in endings. Our notion of time is founded on the understanding that a timeless Being created the world; therefore, a concept of time with rigid beginnings and ends is impossible. For those whose greatest aspiration is to have an experience of the infinite, the constraints of time, with its beginnings and ends have a very different meaning.

In the Diaspora, Shmini Atseret is a two-day holiday; the second day, known as Simḥat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah), also connects to the holiday’s significance, according to Steinmetz:

On Simḥat Torah we will be concluding our yearly reading of the Torah; yet immediately, almost compulsively, we must start reading the first book of the Torah, the book of Genesis, again. The Torah might have a final chapter but it has no end. We will return, and return again and again, to the Torah.

Jewish history also has no end. Jews have refused to accept the dignified burial that so many demanded of us. We have managed to survive, revive, and thrive, to the confusion of the pundits and the frustration of our enemies. Every time it looked like there was an end to Jewish history, there was a new beginning, even more remarkable than the previous one.

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