Shmini Atzeres – Saving the Jewish people for last
Chananya Weissman

In Parshas Pinchas, we read about the sacrifices that were brought during the holiday of Succos. On the first day 13 bulls were sacrificed, on the second day 12 bulls were sacrificed, and so on for seven days – a total of 70. On Shmini Atzeres, a single bull was sacrificed.

The Midrash teaches us that the 70 bulls represented the 70 nations of the world, while the single bull represented Israel. The Midrash goes on to ask why the sacrifice representing the Jews was offered last; if our relationship with Hashem is closer than that of any other nation, our sacrifice should come first!

The Midrash responds with a mashal: A king made a party for his entire land. He told his closest friend, “We have fulfilled our duty towards them. I will involve myself with all of them for seven days.” After seven days he told his friend to remain after everyone else went home. They rummaged around for some leftovers and ate a meal together.

This too is puzzling; why would the king make a lavish party for his countrymen, yet not do at least as much for his closest friend? It seems as if his friend, like the Jews, was just an afterthought!

The next Midrash seems to further deepen the mystery. We are taught to gradually reduce the expenditures for our guests as they continue to stay with us. Initially we should feed them meat, then fish, then simply vegetables.

On the surface this appears to be a subtle message to the guest that he should stop imposing on the host and find someplace else to stay – not exactly the best fulfillment of hachnasas orchim. But it is no coincidence that these Midrashim are juxtaposed, as each sheds light on the other.

The mashal in the first Midrash can be elucidated by a more contemporary mashal, to one who makes a large wedding and invites many hundreds of guests. Every detail is immaculately planned, and it is quite a celebration. The hour grows late, and little by little the guests begin to slip away. Who is left after the main course, the dessert, the final dances? Who is left after the band leaves, as the waiters begin busting the tables? The closest family and friends remain, huddled together at a single table, unconcerned with the fact that the place no longer looks immaculate. They nibble on some leftovers and enjoy a few special moments of intimate company now that everyone else has gone.

The second Midrash is an extension of this idea. The Mitzva of hachnasas orchim is not to gradually reduce hospitality from the moment we welcome a guest into our home; just the opposite. When the guest first arrives we are to serve him a special meal to make him feel welcome and wanted. But as the days go by, if we are truly good hosts, the guest should gradually begin to feel like part of the family, and thus formalities should become  increasingly less necessary. After a few days the guest should feel comfortable rummaging around in the refrigerator and eating whatever is available, just like anyone else in the house. He will no longer receive special, formal treatment precisely because the intimacy of the relationship will make this treatment unnecessary and even out of place.

Similarly, the other nations of the world need the fanfare and formality precisely because they are more distant from Hashem. We enjoy an intimate relationship with Hashem, and long after everyone else has gone we remain in His close company to share a private celebration.

How wonderful it is to be Jewish!