Shvil Israel and Shmini Atzeret: Walking the path of contemplation

The special relationship between the Jews and God is one of responsibility and action, not privilege and exclusion, and Shmini Atzeret gives expression to, and celebrates, that singular bond.

Sunrise in Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sunrise in Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AFTER HIKING the Israel National Trail – Shvil Yisrael – and writing a book about the experience, I often find people ask, “What was your favorite part?”
“Why not ask which of my children is my favorite?” is my usual answer. Some things in life just aren’t comparable, or aren’t worth measuring in that way. Each day on the Trail was not only unique and amazing, challenging and beautiful, but fascinating and uplifting as well. Just like my children.
Walking the Shvil is indeed an experience – a life-changing encounter with our land, our history, our people and society. Trudging along the desolate desert vistas of the Negev fostered a deep sense of humility that helped me to appreciate all the miracles of my life and of the life of our Jewish nation. Climbing through the verdant forests of the Galilee embued me with a tremendous gratitude with which I began a process of forgiveness that was a critical element of my getting over my divorce – and can be a crucial aspect of resolving the Arab-Israel conflict as well. Through the entire trek – “one long meditation” a friend called it – I reconnected with my sense of belonging, with the Jewish people and with this experiment in renewed sovereignty in our land, this modern State of Israel.
There was one point on the Shvil – after spending a Shabbat in the warm embrace of the small community of Sansana in the southern Hebron hills, literally on the seam between the desert and the coastal plain and the Judean mountains, between the grays and dark browns of the northern Negev and the greens and light browns of the flower- and tree-covered hills of central Israel – when I seriously considered just staying over a few more nights. I was exhausted after three weeks of constant climbing and descending, not sleeping much, all alone, from Eilat via Timna and Mitzpe Ramon and the grueling Karbolet ridge. And I was lonely, this being the first traditional Shabbat I’d had in a month. Basking in the kindness and affection of this tranquil little village, feeling the beauty and delight of a Shabbat surrounded by others keeping the practices I’ve learned to treasure so… I just didn’t want to leave.
And yet, funnily enough, the same thing happened a few weeks later, in one of the most non-observant kibbutzim in the country, Bar’am, less than 500 meters from the border with Lebanon. Like Sansana, though established decades prior, Bar’am is a small, close-knit, strongly Zionist community; like Sansana, most of its members serve in the IDF or reserves. More important for me as a shvilist (hiker on the Trail), like Sansana, Bar’am takes the mitzva of hachnasat orhim (hospitality) to an astonishing extreme. The Trail Angel room on the kibbutz was a wonder: clean towels (and sheets. Sheets!), a larder full of food, beds and pillows and hot water and even a mini-stereo – it was a truly magnificent respite and here, too, I didn’t want to leave.
There are more stories to tell on this theme of wanting to remain just a little longer, each one telling a different version of the diversity, the generosity, the sense of family that is part and parcel of being a member of the people of Israel… and which was such an astounding phenomenon of my rambling trek along the 1,000 kilometers of the Shvil over the course of eight weeks without a break.
SHMINI ATZERET is kind of like that, in a way.
The Torah is relatively sparse in its description of the holiday. In fact, it’s downright laconic. Sukkot is described in detail, both with reference to the historical nature of the festival (dwell in booths as you did in the desert in the Exodus from Egypt) and in terms of its observance, with the lulav and etrog and all the rest. Passover is similarly detailed, between the prohibition of hametz and the telling of the story of the Exodus (...and you shall teach your son on that day). On the other hand, Shmini Atzeret is literally an “Eighth Day of Gathering,” where God seemingly says to the nation of Israel, “You are My people, hang around a bit, let’s connect on a more intimate level." This festival has no symbolic or ritual elements unique only to it, and is observed entirely by prayer (and food – it’s a Jewish festival, after all): quietly, almost serenely.
We, as a nation, have an unusual relationship with the Creator of the universe. It’s special not because we’re superior to any other nation, or favored by God, as some critics of Jews and Judaism complain. The “Chosen People” were chosen in antiquity to bring a message of morality and values to humanity, not to be treated better by others or be seen as more worthy in any way. (In fact we’ve been arguably treated worse than any other nation in history, as a group.)
The special relationship between the Jews and God is one of responsibility and action, not privilege and exclusion. It’s more akin to the role given to one sibling among others to be the executor of the patriarch’s will upon his demise – a task not always assigned to the eldest (and not always performed willingly either). Protesters in the US, or antisemites around the world, who suggest that Jews should “check their (white) privilege” and that Jews carry with us a mind-set in any way comparable to the vile white supremacists now so publicly active, are blinded by their own hate to the reality of our unique relationship with the Creator. (Let’s not even go into the absurdity of calling Jews “white” – as if all our compatriots aren’t also black/brown/yellow/red or otherwise, all of whom I met while hiking the Shvil.) It is this distinctiveness, and the bond between the God of Israel and the people of Israel (and between us ourselves) which Shmini Atzeret gives expression to, and celebrates.
Jews around the world just spent two weeks praying for the renewal and development of all humanity, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We will spend this week of Sukkot remembering the offerings brought in the Temple for the benefit of all the nations of the world. Our religious tradition of tikkun olam (repairing the world), even if possibly based on a questionable re-interpretation of its original context in the Talmud, is emblematic of Jews’ understanding of our role on this planet and in history, as messengers of God’s goodness and advocates for a values-based society – at the individual, communal and national levels. But on Shmini Atzeret, we take a break and focus inward.
The Hebrew word Atzeret itself is fascinating, as are the traditions associated with the holiday. From the same root as “to stop, to pause,” it calls for a cessation not only of activity – it is a festival like others in Judaism – but for an end to Sukkot, this celebration of man-and-womankind’s sheltering under the tabernacle of the clouds of glory that accompanied the children of Israel in the Exodus. It demands a halt to all these commemorations and symbolic representations of our peoplehood and our history, our religiosity and traditions, however meaningful and important. It puts aside our shofar and lulav and allows us to gather (another definition of Atzeret) and focus on our connection: with our people, with one another, and of course with the Holy One. It is a day of uplifting spiritual one-ness, with no ritual other than prayer itself to distract us from contemplating the wonders and miracles of our existence – personally, communally and nationally.
Which is exactly how I felt tramping through the Judean Desert mountains in the third week of hiking the Shvil, surrounded by nothingness. There are no plants there; no birds, no insects or ants even; just miles and miles of brown and black rock and dirt. Like walking on the moon. It was a time of deep reflection and incredible connection, though, as these were the hills where many of our prophets wandered, and then ending up in the desert town of Arad, where Jews from Morocco, India, America, France, Russia and Ethiopia have settled and built a thriving city in the desert, brought the miracle of the ingathering of our exiles into our ancestral homeland into profound relief for this hiker.
I wanted to remain in Arad one more day, as I did in so many places – not least as my blessed Trail Angels there, Arie and Leah Shiff, were so warm and welcoming and it was so comfortable in their Bedouin tent set up in memory of their son Ofer. I connected in so many ways with them and numerous others in the village-like town (including the owners of the Midbar Winery, where we went to help them bottle in the evening).
Stay and connect, is the message of Shmini Atzeret, as God’s special nation. Two centuries ago R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch put beautifully this combination of “wait here for a moment” and the ties between us all and between us and God. We don’t only gather together on Shmini Atzeret. We gather, we harvest and store up all the gratitude and appreciation, joy and devotion, forgiveness and meaning that we’ve (hopefully) experienced over the course of the preceding month, so it can inform and affect our lives moving forward – a sort of “Otzer” or treasury collected for the coming year.
Kind of like the way memories of the Shvil accompany me as I move forward with my own life.
Hag Sameah!
The writer, a business executive and consultant and formerly a senior adviser to minister Natan Sharansky in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the author of the book My Israel Trail: Finding Peace in the Promised Land (, published by Cedar Fort/Plain Sight.