Jackson Browne put it this way: “Oh, won’t you stay just a little bit longer?”
That was how it was when I would come home from college. I would arrive home in time for Shabbat dinner. I would sleep in my childhood bedroom. On Saturday afternoon, I would want to drive back to campus, about an hour away.
The conversation was predictable.
“Why are you rushing out of here so soon? Stay for dinner; stay for dessert; come on, let’s watch television; sleep over; stay for breakfast.”
My parents wanted more of me.
Which leads me to consider where we are in the Jewish calendar.
We are now in the festival of Sukkot.
Let’s make sure that we get the timeline right.
- Seven days of Sukkot, with the seventh day being Hoshanah Rabbah. (“Wait. Another Jewish holiday?!?”)
- And then, an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, which is a festival unto itself.
- And then, a second day of Shemini Atzeret, which is Simchat Torah, when Jews simultaneously finish the annual Torah reading cycle, and begin again.
By the end of Simchat Torah, many of us are experiencing the clinically-verifiable Tishrei Burnout Syndrome. My rabbinical colleagues look at the coming month of Cheshvan – the only Jewish month without a holiday – and they cannot wait!
But, the full name of the month of Cheshvan is Mar-cheshvan. Mar means “bitter,” as if to say that the month of Cheshvan is bitter, because when God gave out holidays, that month came up empty. No Jewish holidays in Cheshvan.
What if we were to experience this through the eyes of God?
In ancient times, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the festival calendar was pretty simple. Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot. Those were the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage (literally, “foot”) festivals. On those sacred occasions, the Israelites would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices. It was when they would have made an appearance for God.
So, remember: no holidays in Cheshvan. Hanukkah, in the following month of Kislev, did not exist yet. Neither did Purim, several months later in Adar. In the ancient festival calendar, there were no festivals between Sukkot and Pesach. The Israelites would not have re-appeared at the Temple in Jerusalem until Pesach.
So, let’s get back to Sukkot. A midrash states: God stretched out these holidays. Seven days of Sukkot; OK, let’s throw in another festival on what would have been the eighth day; OK, one day of that festival is not enough, so let’s do two..
It all goes back to Jackson Browne: “Why don’t you stay just a little bit longer?”
And, it all goes back to my parents: “What are you rushing back for? Stick around!”
That is what God was saying on Sukkot. The word “atzeret” is related to the word for “detaining” or “holding back. God is holding us back. RASHI, the medieval commentator, puts it this way:
I keep you back with Me one day more. It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!”
God was already missing us! God was anticipating being lonely. “Because I am not going to be seeing My kids again until Pesach!”
God needed us to be around.
Wait. God “needs?” isn’t God all-knowing, all-powerful, and self-sufficient? God has no needs!
Right. That would be Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”
But, some of the ancient sages imagined a God Who was not Unmoved – but, rather, a God Who was moved by human action.
In the words of the biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs: “The biblical god is not an abstract principle, but a real personality involved in the human situation.”
That means that God feels. That is clear from the biblical stories, and it is clear from the rabbinic stories. God has concerns. God experiences joy, anger, disappointment, worry, sadness, and regret.
This is a God Who has longings.
That is why God elongated the festival of Sukkot, and then some. Because God knew that God would miss us.
God is emotionally needy.
So are we.
Go, now, beyond Simchat Torah to the beginning of the Torah itself — to Bereshit.
God creates, and with everything that God creates, God says: This is good.
But, what was the first thing that God created, in which God decidedly said “this is not good”?
God creates Adam as singular. God says: “It is not good for people to be alone.”
You bet it isn’t.
The US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, sought to understand the greatest health risks in America today. He expected those risks to be cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and addictions.
Wrong. The biggest health problem in America today is loneliness.
- 36% of Americans report persistent feelings of loneliness.
- 54% of Americans say no one knows them well.
- 40% report “they lack companionship.”
- The number of adults without a romantic partner is up by a third.
- 27% of Americans are estranged from their immediate family.
It turns out that loneliness is as bad for you physically as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
It turns out that it is not good for God to be lonely, either.
Almost a hundred years ago, the great Hebrew poet Chayim Nachman Bialik imagined what it could be like for God to enter a synagogue, and to find it empty.
I alone am left to find myself beneath the broken wings of God’s Presence.
God’s Presence hides in a corner of the synagogue, sitting in a shadow.
And what will happen afterwards, after the synagogue and the house of study
Are completely empty and there is no one left?”
What will God do afterwards?
This year, I am not only resolved to break through the walls of loneliness.
This year, I am going to try to make God less lonely, as well.