The name Sh’mini Atzeret is translated in some books as “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly”, but Atzeret is connected, in the view of the rabbinic sages, with atzar, which means “stop”. Some may remember a time when you would find a big notice on an Israeli road, Atzor! G’vul l’fanecha! – “Stop! Border Ahead!”
There is another sense in which atzor is used in rabbinic commentary in relation to Sh’mini Atzeret, Atzarti et’chem etzli… Kashah alai p’ridat’chem – “I (says God) want you to stay longer with Me; it is hard for Me to see you depart” (Rashi on Lev. 23:36; cf. Sukkah 55b).
In that sense, Sh’mini Atzeret is the Jewish people holding on to the festive season, reluctant to leave it behind.
The Yizkor memorial prayers we recite on Sh’mini Atzeret symbolise an extension of this thought to the wider experience of being human.
We are all reluctant to say “goodbye” to dear ones and friends, but no matter how long we try to hold on, there comes that moment when there is no choice but to say “goodbye”. It’s hard, but it’s a fact of life.
And it raises another hard question. What do you do after you have had to say “goodbye”?
There are some who say, “After what has happened, my life is finished too.”
We understand, but our tradition has a different approach. It says, “After the Temple was destroyed, the Divine Presence continued to hover over the ruins”.
Something similar was said by the American poet, Henry Ward Beecher: “When the sun goes down, the heavens glow for a full hour after his departure”. The physical presence has departed, but we remain blessed by the memory that remains.
Listen to this story from an article by Jack Riemer in the “Houston Chronicle” of 10 February, 2001:
“On 18 November, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Lincoln Center in New York City.
“If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.
“To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward.
“Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.
“By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.
“But this time, something went wrong.
“Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.
“People who were there that night thought to themselves: ‘We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – to either find another violin or else find another string for this one.’
“But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off.
“And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.
“Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in his head.
“At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.
“When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.
“He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said – not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone – ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’”
It’s not only a violin string that is sometimes gone. Nor is it only a loved one or a dear friend. It can be a person’s health, or money, or career.
One can be obsessed with what has gone, and with good reason. But the Itzhak Perlman principle is, “How much music do I still have in me? How much music can I still make with what I have left?”
I well remember a Shabbat sermon I once gave about Ashrei, the alphabetical Psalm 145. I was impressed with myself and thought the sermon was quite well received. That is, until the Kiddush after the service.
I had explained how Hebrew poets often structured their work with an alef-bet framework as an aid to memory in days before printed books were available. I had pointed out that in Psalm 145 the alphabetical structure was deficient in that there was no nun verse.
I spoke about how the Talmud explains the omission. I showed that the Greek version in the Septuagint supplied a nun verse. It was all very interesting, I thought, and very learned.
But then someone, a visitor to Sydney, came up to me at the Kiddush and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I did not like your sermon. You spoke so much about what was missing. Surely it is more important to concentrate not on what isn’t there, but what is!”
I was deflated, but I realised the visitor was right. True wisdom is in making music with what one still has.
“Why can’t you stay longer?” is what we yearn to say to anyone or anything that is on the way to departure. We yearn to say, Atzor! We yearn, in the words of the burial service, to say to the angel that is about to bear a dear one away, Heref yadecha – “Stay your hand!”
But whether we achieve a delay or not, whether or not the harsh moment can be postponed, what is going to be will be, and we will need to say “goodbye”.
That’s when we have to remember Itzhak Perlman and say, “The art in life is to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left!”