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Succot & Shemini Atzeret: Water

Although everything is judged on Rosh Hashana, that judgment is for potential only. On Succot we are judged on water. God determines how the rain will fall, where it fall and when. Much of the Temple service on Succot was centered on water.  We continue to focus on the judgment on water even when the Temple is not standing. On Shemini Atzeret, we will pray “Geshem” a special prayer for beneficial rain. Water continues to play a major role in our Succot celebrations with the Hoshanot and the Simchat Beit Hasho’eiva.

On Succot, in the days when the Temple stood, Jews would go down to Motza, a valley below Jerusalem, and pick huge Aravah, or willow, branches, each eleven cubits long. The branches would be placed upright on the base of the Altar on all four sides. They would extend a cubit over the altar with their tips hanging over its top. To the joyous sound of shofar blasts, Jews would enter the Temple courtyard and encircle the altar once on each of the first six days of Succot. On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah, they would encircle the altar seven times. When the Second Temple was built, this ceremony was broadened. The prophets Chaggai, Zechariah and Malachi, who were members of the Great Assembly, instituted the custom that on Hoshana Rabbah, Jews could take part of the ceremony wherever they were, even outside the Temple. (Artscroll Machzor, Succot page XXV)

Simchat Beit Hasho’eiva
Whoever has not seen the joy of the Simchat Beit Hasho’eiva, The Water Drawing Ceremony, has not witnessed real joy in his life! On the night following the first day of Succot, the Kohanim would enter the women’s courtyard and make elaborate preparations for the ceremony and ensuing celebration. There were giant Menorahs placed, each with four large containers for oil, and four ladders leaning against each Menorah. Four young Kohanim would climb the ladders carrying large containers of oil, which they would then pour into the oil pipes on top of the menorahs. Wicks were made from the worn clothes of the Kohanim. They would light the menorahs and the entire city of Jerusalem would be lit up. Pious men and people of great accomplishment would dance before the menorahs with torches singing praises of the Almighty. The Leviim would stand with innumerable musical instruments and they would sing the fifteen Songs of Ascension from psalms, corresponding to the fifteen steps leading into the main Temple courtyard. Two Kohanim would stand at the top in front of the gate to the courtyard with trumpets. The announcer would call out and the Kohanim would blast.  When the Kohanim reached the top step they would turn to the people and declare their fealty to God. (TBSuccah 51-53

Water and Creation

The story of creation had many elements of water. The heavens are called “Shamayim,” meaning “sham mayim”, “The Place of Water.” (Rashi, Genesis 1:1) We read how the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water. (Genesis 1:2) Rashi compares the scene of God hovering over the water to a mother bird circling over her young in the nest. It is interesting to note that we create a “nest” so to speak, over the altar with the tall willow branches. The willows form a nest over the altar. They take us back to one of the most intimate moments of creation when the Almighty “hovered over the face of the water” with the love and concern that a mother birds shows her offspring.

The second day of creation was dedicated to water. God created a firmament to separate between the waters above it and the waters below. The splitting of the water is considered to be the introduction of conflict into creation. The lower waters did not want to be separated from God. When those waters “complained” God responded by adding salt, derived from the lower waters, to all the offerings in the Temple. The altar, once again, is a place that takes us back to the beginning of time.

The Talmud teaches that the water poured on the altar on Succot was drawn from a special place in the Temple that connected to the original Lower Waters. In fact, when we reconnect with the lower waters we draw Divine Inspiration. (Bereishit Rabbah 70:8. See too, Ruth Rabbah 4:9, based on Isaiah 12:3) The experience was so powerful that the sages taught that Jonah was so inspired that it was specifically then, at the Water Drawing Ceremony when he received his prophecy. (Yalkut Shimoni, Jonah #550) This connection to the beginning of creation empowers us to understand the world in extra dimensions, beyond our purely physical ken.

Which waters is the source of rain? Rabbi Joshua teaches that rain falls from the Upper Waters, from close to God. Rabbi Eliezer argues. He believes that all rain rises from the ground, evaporation, is purified of salt by the clouds (another theme of Succot), and then falls back to earth nourishing life. (TBTa’anit 9b) We believe that the source of rain depends on our connection to God. (Rabbeinu Bachya, Deuteronomy 11:17)

Water is the first “work” of man. It becomes a symbol of prayer. The earth produced herbs, vegetation and tress, but none appeared above the surface of the earth, “because there was no man to work the land.” (Genesis 2:5) Rashi explains that there was no human being to understand that God’s involvement was necessary for creation to continue. There was no man to pray for the water necessary for all the plant life to burst forth from the below the surface of the earth. The first mention of work refers to prayer for water. The first prayer of man for water was his statement that God is also the Sustainer of existence.

This prayer of the first human being reconnected him to the formation of his body.  “A mist rose from the ground and watered the face of the garden.” The cloud rose from the

ground, the Lower Waters reaching up, from where we derive the law that s’chach must
be made of something that grows from the ground. The mist watered the earth and turned the dust into mud. God used the mud to form the body of Adam. The same dust filled the hollow space in the altar, which, again, takes us back to the beginning of existence. We
pour water on the altar on Succot, recreating the scene of the mist that fell on the dust, preparing the ground to be used for the formation of man’s body.

When we pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret, when we perform the Hoshanot with the willow branches, when we poured water on the altar, we were doing far more than simply praying for basic sustenance. We are connecting back to the formation of the first human, and even further back, to the opening moments of creation. Our prayer for rain is a reflection of our very first job: The acknowledgement that God’s constant involvement is absolutely necessary to the sustenance of the world. We are making a statement that God is the Sustainer, that God is actively involved in existence.

When we successfully reconnect to our original mission we can draw Divine Inspiration just as easily as drawing water from a well. Succot, and Shemini Atzeret are the perfect opportunity to merit the deepest insights, far reaching perception and one of the highest levels of clarity. (There is a debate between Nachmanides and Rabbeinu Bachya whether Divine Inspiration is greater or less than prophecy. See Rabbeinu Bachya on V’zot Haberacha) We have an opportunity to go back in time to our beginning, when all was pure and we were new, exactly what we do when we make offerings on the Altar, the home of the earth from which the first man was created.

Shemini Atzeret is our opportunity to merit that the Upper Waters, with their greater abundance, be the source of our rain. We pray to merit that we experience God’s sustenance from a source “closer” to Him.

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