September 4, 2013
“My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.”
Water plays an important part in the story of the Jewish people symbolically, spiritually and historically. Water, rain and floods have a spiritual and historical meaning. Water symbolizes rebirth, starting anew and spiritual cleansing. In the story of our collective beginnings as a people, water wiped out an entire population so God could repopulate the earth with people who behaved in a more ethical way. The mikveh (ritual bath) is a means used for people who are converting to Judaism to symbolize the entry into a new state of being—Jewish. Our prophet Miriam, Moses’ sister, is associated with water: A legend surrounds her about a well that accompanied the Israelites through the desert which gave the people sustenance during their 40-year journey. Water also has significant meaning associated with our upcoming fall holiday of Sukkot.
The festival of Sukkot is closely linked with water and with rainfall. Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh regalim), along with Passover and Shavuot, which have their origins in the Bible and in the agricultural traditions of the Jewish people. The holiday commemorates the autumn harvest, and as with many of our Jewish holidays, additional pieces to the meaning of Sukkot have been sewn into the tapestry of what makes our holiday celebrations so rich with meaning and ritual. In order for the harvest to be successful, the right amount of rain had to fall. Water takes a “starring role” in the liturgy, the observance and the biblical origins of the festival of Sukkot.
Rain and the pleas for it to fall are a critical part of the observance of this holiday. The words “Mashiv HaRuah U'Morid Ha'Gashem" ([God] causes the wind to blow and makes the rain fall) is an extra line that is added to our central prayer in our worship services—the Amidah—after the final day of this eight-day holiday. It is then said as an extra line in this central prayer of our service for the next six months until the holiday of Passover.
This period of time is considered the rainy season. Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season. Our ancestors lived in an agrarian society and their livelihood was dependent on the rain falling. That rain was needed for the fall harvest and it needed to be just the right amount: sufficient for the flourishing of the crop, but not too excessive to cause flooding. According to traditional Judaism, Sukkot is the time of year in which God judges the world for rainfall; therefore, praying for rain was essential not only for the harvest but also for the sake of God’s judgment.
To mark the significance of rain and for the gratitude of receiving it, there is a little-known celebration during Sukkot called Simchat Beit Hashueva, (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing) which originated thousands of years ago when the Temple in Jerusalem stood. An offering of water was poured onto the altar of the Temple. The pouring was celebrated with much fanfare and it occurred every evening during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Great lights illuminated the area of the Temple, and there was a festival atmosphere with singing, dancing and performing. An entire week of celebration was devoted to water and the antics went on through the night.
It is written in the Talmud that the world is judged by its rainfall on Sukkot and an offering is brought so that the rains for the coming year will be blessed. Today, this same type of celebration continues in many traditional communities. There is dancing and music and joy as the members of the community celebrate not only the joyousness of the holiday of Sukkot (it is also referred to as Zman Simchateinu—The Season of Our Joy), but also the importance of recalling the rejoicing of the water offering ceremony.
Water: source of life, basis for ritual and prayer, cause for celebration. During Sukkot, we celebrate our abundant blessings, by praying and giving thanks for that which has grown from the land with the help of Mayim (water), providing Hayim (life) to all.