I love watching award shows. In particular, I love watching the joy on people’s faces as they win, seeing the way they cheer for one another, and of course the fashion on display. But if I’m being honest, I’m a little jealous of the after parties. The award show itself is broadcast for the public to enjoy. It’s intended for the fans almost as much as it is for the nominees and recipients. The parties that follow, however, are for those involved. We may see short clips on the evening news, but that’s about it. These soirées are for the elite and their guests, which might feel exclusive, but for good reason. It’s an intimate opportunity for people with shared experiences to come together.
There’s an after party in the Torah, which we celebrate every year. We learn about this moment from our Torah portion this week, Pinchas. Parshat Pinchas begins with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took toward those who defied the prohibition against idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Chodesh and other holidays.
As we read through lists and lists of how to celebrate each holiday, it becomes clear how God defines the “invitees” for these celebrations. For the most part, they’re meant to be open festivals where all the people would gather to celebrate. There was minimal exclusion among the nations. That is, until we read the final directions for Sukkot.
We’re first told that Sukkot, the festival of booths, is a seven-day holiday. Then, in chapter 30, we read about this mysterious eighth day of gathering known as Shemini Atzeret. On this day there are fewer offerings to God and a bit more intimacy involved. This is the after party. The Talmud in tractate Sukkot 55b imagines God as a host, welcoming representatives of all nations who have come to pay homage on Sukkot. As the festival ends and the other nations depart, God invites the Israelites to gather just one more day for this intimate, more exclusive time.
With most celebrations, the more the merrier. However, this description of Shemini Atzeret in the Torah is a helpful reminder that gathering together for a specific purpose can be beautiful and holy. Especially during these past couple of years, one of the lessons we’ve learned is that taking the time to focus on the needs of our households and our more immediate circles is a sacred and precious duty, and something to hold onto even in a post-pandemic world.