Too Much? Then, Less Is Better (A Shemini Atzeret Devar Torah delivered at Congregation Sons of Israel of Amsterdam, NY)

Read this devar Torah here or below:


It’s a busy day at the ER. Several people are waiting just outside for the announcement that their respective wives have given birth.

“Mr. Gold,” calls out one doctor.

“Yes!” replies Mr. Gold.

“Congratulations,” says the doctor. “You have twins!”

“That’s great,” says the new father, with a chuckle. “After all, I work for the Double Mint Gum people.”

“Mr. McCarthy!” shouts out another doctor.

“I’m here,” says a nervous McCarthy.

“Congratulations, you are now the father of three triplets!”

A grin runs across McCarthy’s face. “My co-workers at 3M are gonna laugh when they hear I’ve had triplets!”

Another doctor cries out. “Smith, are you here!?”

Smith replies in a cold sweat, “Doctor, I’m here! What is it?”

“Congratulations,” begins the doctor, but Smith interrupts!

“I don’t think I want to hear what you’ve got to say, Doc. I work at the 7-11.”

Sometimes an abundance can be nice, but in general an overabundance is just too much. Here at Congregation Sons of Israel, we’ve been seeing each other a lot compared to what the rest of this year will be like. I feel like it’s been nice, and, on top of that, I sense that we are a very lucky community. It is easy for Jews to be wiped out and overwhelmed at this time of year. Just to give you an example of what I mean by “overwhelmed,” floating around the Internet right now is a picture of the cover of the Berenstain Bears children’s book The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday, but, instead of “Too Much Birthday,” it reads “Too Much Yuntif.”

I can tell you that, this week, I am entering my fifth week of Rabbinical School classes, and 3 out of my 6 classes have met ony twice this whole time. I have only had one full week of school even though I am already a third of the way into this semester.

“Too much” is a common Jewish problem; a common Jewish theme. It is no accident then that the first month of the Jewish calendar precedes Heshvan, a month in which there is not a single Jewish holiday. In this season—totally wiped out from Rosh Hashanah, Tzom Gedalyah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah, plus Shabbat, plus the rest of life—friends of mine in Rabbinical School are talking about investing in a shirt that reads:

RABBIS ❤ CHESHVAN

Because in Heshvan, rabbis actually get to sleep.

But right now, I’ve been talking about the lives of rabbis and the lives of rabbinical students. Congregation Sons of Israel, like many synagogues, does not hold services during every time of day of every holiday. In fact, we here have not met in such a gathering since we concluded Yom Kippur. Since then, it has been about 12 days, about half of which have been Jewish holidays. Yet we here did not celebrate them together! For me, as someone who accepts Judaism as a holistic entity, this poses a major question: Judaism sometimes feels like too much, but how can we possibly accept any less than its traditional model?

After all, today is Shemini Atzeret. In Hebrew, Shemini means “the 8th,” as in “the 8th day (since Sukkot began),” and Atzeret means “Stopping,” as in “(Sukkot is now) Stopping.” Shemini Atzeret is the 8th Day when Everything Stops, 7 days ago, We Did Not Start Anything Together As a Community. So what are we stopping on this 8th day? How can this be Shemini Atzeret?

Yet, here we are gathered celebrating Shemini Atzeret.

Further, we’ll see in the Torah reading today that there is very little that makes Shemini Atzeret distinct in the religion of our biblical ancestors, and we’ll see it’s in ways very much nothing more than the stopping of Sukkot. Yet, it is a special day of Yom Tov, on which we refrain from work the same way we would on Rosh Hashanah, on Shavu’ot, or the beginning or end of Pesah. The rabbis of the Talmud recognize this particular distinction of Shemini Atzeret—the fact that it is Yom Tov—and they also recognize and deal with the very specific case of Congregation Sons of Israel. Now, in the Babylonian Talmud, edited around the 6th Century—so we’re talking about 1500 years ago, a millennium and a half before us—the rabbis quote the words of sages from centuries even before them (Rosh Hashanah 4b):

מִי שֶׁלֹּא חָג יוֹם טוֹב הָרִאשׁוֹן שֶׁל חָג…

When someone hasn’t celebrated the first day of Yom Tov of the Holiday…

חוֹגֵג אֶת כׇּל הָרֶֽגֶל וְיוֹם טוֹב הָאַחֲרוֹן שֶׁל חָג.

They still celebrate the rest of the Festival and the last day of Yom Tov of the Holiday.

So, the rabbis basically say, when you haven’t started one of these long 8-day holidays on the first day, you jump into it when you can, and you celebrate it through the end.

And that’s not all. The rabbis go on, telling us in this same passage, one of their key life philosophies:

תָּפַֽשְׂתָּ מְרוּבֶּה, לֹא תָפָֽשְׂתָּ;

If you’re holding an excessive amount, you’re not really holding onto anything.

תָּפַֽשְׂתָּ מוּעָט, תָּפָֽשְׂתָּ.

But if you hold just a little bit, you’re actually holding onto something.

The rabbis essentially are teaching, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” and “You look hungry; you should eat something.” The rabbis know that they are serving you a lot of holidays at this time of year, and they’re hoping that they’re not putting too much on your plate, reminding you that they don’t want to overstuff you.

The only problem with this is that the rabbis did overstuff the Jewish people and just kept on adding holidays into an overbooked Jewish calendar.

So what happened?

It is my suspicion that it’s always been hard for the rabbis to compromise. That is why, when we study Jewish law in classical Jewish texts, we often ask whose viewpoint wins out; we don’t ask what value we can learn from each viewpoint, selecting the best pieces of a multivocal tradition to make something jointly created by many rabbis. Instead, for the rabbis, it hasn’t been about compromise or collectivity so much as it has been about somebody being right and somebody being wrong. So, when you get one voice that says, “It’s okay if you miss part of the holiday,” and you get an opposing voice saying, “All of these days are holidays,” I personally would be inclined to say, “Great! This is our calendar, and we’ve get a few days off!” But the Rabbinic answer differs. Rabbis have to choose which opinion sounds more legitimate.

Imagine the Rabbis voting. Given the two positions of “If you can’t handle all the holidays, do what you can,” vs. “These all are our holidays,” do you think the rabbis voted for “You can take a personal day” or do you think the rabbis voted for “These are the holidays of the entire people”?

Well, the correct answer is that the communal calendar won the vote.

But this does not mean that the rabbis in favor of taking a day off were illegitimate or wrong. It means that they lost an election. People like us who live in a democracy are well-aware that losing an election does not make your opinions wrong. It just means you’re less likely to be heard.

So, where are those rabbis today who say, “We have a lot of holidays, maybe too many even, so you should take it easy”? Well, these rabbis are unsurprisingly not generally in the Orthodox camp and, even in the liberal camp of Conservative Judaism, these rabbis are—like the rabbis of the Talmud so long ago—a curiously quiet voice. A minority? I don’t know. But heard? Often not.

Congregation Sons of israel is, as I’m discovering over the course of my time here—a curiously quiet yet important voice in Conservative Judaism. If you Google some of our former rabbis, you’ll see many of them have been honorably reocgnized in their communities, in publications, at the Jewish Theological Seminary and elsewhere. And, forget about the rabbis! The mentschlekhkeit and the earnestness of this community, of us sitting here today, was praised again and again by every former rabbi of this schul with whom I’ve spoken, and, in meeting this hevre here over the past month and a half, I can only verify these rumors.

So, I am very proud to have the chance to make sacred moments a reality here at Congregation Sons of Israel. Because we understand

 תָּפַֽשְׂתָּ מְרוּבֶּה, לֹא תָפָֽשְׂתָּ;

That when you take too much, you take nothing at all;

תָּפַֽשְׂתָּ מוּעָט, תָּפָֽשְׂתָּ.

But that when you take just enough, you can truly take it in.

If I didn’t believe that we could come together to get something out of our time together, then I wouldn’t want to be here. And if anyone ever felt that schul had too much of something—so much of something that they could never get anything out of it—I would want that person to speak up and to speak out.

If we come to schul or do anything in our lives too much for us to take in, then Rabbinic wisdom tells us we’ve gotta take a little less for ourselves.

May it be our will and God’s will that we hold only what we can hold onto, that we take what we can take in, and that we choose only that which we can chew. Ken yehi ratzon—may it be God’s will. Amen.

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About jonahrank


One response to “Too Much? Then, Less Is Better (A Shemini Atzeret Devar Torah delivered at Congregation Sons of Israel of Amsterdam, NY)

  • Maya

    And yet, I think that the ideal is still full observance and full attendance at shul… We have to push ourselves toward that goal, even if we know we won’t make it this year… (I certainly didn’t make it to shul every day/every service of this yontif season)… Still, there’s something valuable about aspirational practice, even in the face of reality and realism.

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