This was thrown together in the one day I had free between the end of yom tov and the beginning of Shabbat. I hope it makes sense.
Zohar Atkins notes that Sukkot, of all the holidays, doesn’t involve doing anything. Pesach has its matzah and its seder; Shavuot is connected to the harvest and the mitzvot of לקט שכחה ופאה, as we’ve discussed; Rosh Hashana has shofar and Yom Kippur its ענוי. But the mitzvot of Sukkot are to sit: בסכת תשבו שבעת ימים and holding some vegetables.
And שמיני עצרת is even more boring: the definition of the day is only to be an עצרת: just stop. We have added the celebration of שמחת תורה, but in the Torah, there is nothing. The culmination of the cycle of the year’s holidays is just a moment to stop.
And our parsha introduces the other “stopping point” in the Jewish calendar:
The reason is worded slightly differently in the עשרת הדברות:
שבת was more than stopping creation; it was the וינח ביום השביעי, the creation of מנוחה, that was the reason for ויברך אלקים את יום השביעי ויקדש אתו.
What does מנוחה mean? We could look at “rest” as kind of negative good; a chance to get out of the bad things that happen when we don’t rest. I’ve quoted Benjamin Hoffman before:
That’s certainly true, and gives שבת value. And the comments there note the similarity to Sukkot:
But מנוחה means something more.
So מנוחה is the creation that keeps the world going. That’s great for ה׳; but what does that mean for our שבת? We can stop creating התחדשות; the ל״ט מלאכות are all about technology. But how does מנוחה allow us to create without התחדשות?
My thought came from an essay by neuroscientist Erik Hoel, who presented a hypothesis for why we sleep and dream.
The מנוחה of שבת in the week, and the עצרת of שמיני עצרת in the year are exactly that for our identity, our sense of self. ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך is important; it’s the expression of our role in the created world. It is who we are supposed to be. But it’s too easy for us to get overfitted into the things we do. מנוחה lets us see that we are more than the roles we fit into. It is the continuous creation of our selves without the pressure of התחדשות.
We move from the boring of doing the same thing over and over to the boring of doing nothing, and that allows us to grow.
מנוחה and עצרת remove the limits remove the limits that the quotidian world places on us.