Hope you’re having a wonderful Sukkot.
Last blog I wrote about the lulav & etrog, and the sukkah itself. I didn’t get a chance to write about the water – an essential part of Sukkot.
Sukkot is the time that God judges the world for rain. Of course, the measure of rain in the world is key to…everything.
So, in ancient times, when the Temple still stood, there was a ceremony called ‘Simchat Beit haShoeivah’, the joy of the water drawing libations. Water was drawn from a particular place in Jerusalem and brought to the Temple for a ritual of water libations. The descriptions of this celebration are astounding. There was ongoing music, dancing, singing and the Sages juggled burning torches! The Talmud specifically mentions Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who juggled 8 burning torches at once and never let them touch each other – I’d want to stand near him.
If the rabbi of my shul juggled burning torches… it would be standing room only!
In fact, the Talmud states that if someone has not seen the celebrations of these water libations, they have not experienced joy (in other words, we don’t know from parties). It is the holiday when we are told that the men and women were separated in the Temple. It is these texts of separating men and women that will eventually lead to the traditional separation of men and women in prayer at all times. But that’s not what is being described here. Here, special mention is made that during this celebration, in particular, men and women were separated, with celebrations and jubilation occurring on both sides. The Levites would stand between the places of the men and women and play their instruments and sing, so both sides could enjoy the moment equally.
Actually, as a woman, I can well understand and appreciate that if everyone is celebrating with great abandon, and if water is freely flowing, pouring and splashing…I might not want to be standing in public with my clothes soaking wet, outlining every inch of me. It’s meant to be a religious ritual, not a wet t-shirt contest (sorry for that image but we all know how a party can go so wrong).
In fact, as Sukkot comes to an end, the seventh day is called Hoshannah Rabbah – the Grand Hosannas. In a tradition that dates back to Temple days, we take our lulav and etrog and walk around the sanctuary in circuits as we recite the Hoshannot. The day marks the end of the High Holidays, as the decisions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are made, sealed and now delivered. It is a ceremony filled with Jewish mysticism and a step back into our ancient past. I love watching the hakafot, the circuits around the sanctuary, from a balcony view. Everyone below looks like a water current flowing round and round. The medium becomes the message and the power of the High Holidays infuses the participants and then slowly ebbs away.
And for all of us who have ever danced a hora at a simcha (the circle dance, also called the Mayim dance), we have emulated the water libation dancing. The words to the hora begin: ‘ushoftem mayim bisasson, mimainei hayishua’, ‘and you will draw water in joy from the waters of salvation’ – a quote referring back to Simchat Beit HaShoievah – the joy of the water drawing libations.
Soon we will transition out of our holiest time of the year, as we should. We need to go back to the mundane, but if we’re lucky we can carry some of these moments with us in the coming year.
May we all enter a year of peace, abundance and health. May we dance a hora or two with the images of rabbis juggling burning torches and may we learn to experience joy that has no limit.