The holiday Sukkot is famously called Zman Simchateinu, the Season of our Joy. It’s a time to live in a Sukkah, exposed to the elements just at the cusp of the time of year in much of the northern hemisphere when the rains of autumn are beginning. The Talmud likens rain in the sukkah to a servant who brings water to his king and the sovereign, rather than drink it, drenches the serf’s face.
In a reverse Camelot kind of way, the rain cleared for us almost every night. We were able to enjoy our meals outside under s'chach and sky.
It got me thinking about the relationship between water and the festival we are now completing. During the Second Temple period, the proto-rabbinic Pharisees added a celebration during Sukkot to amplify and extend the sacrificial service and the waving and processing with the lulav and etrog, the palm branch and citrons. They called it Simchat Beit Hashoeva, The Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing. A celebration of the coming rain and the final ingathering of the harvest just completed, it led to many of the rituals we still have regarding the acknowledgment of God’s role in our survival due to the presence or absence of water.
As we progressed through the holiday this year, I became aware of many H2O texts, some explicit and some more subtle. Join me on the journey.
The second day’s haftarah from Kings recounts the initiation of the First Temple of Solomon and the poles of the Ark of the Covenant are offhandedly reported as sticking out of the Holy of Holies so they can be seen in the sanctuary.
Why? Certainly the ark hasn’t grown since it was built for the traveling Sanctuary in the desert! Based on what we know, the space given in the Temple was large enough so the poles should have fit. More importantly, the poles would no longer be needed; this is a ‘bricks and mortar’ Temple, after all, not a traveling enterprise like the one in the desert!
Most commentators don’t even try to answer these questions. One does suggest they stick out so the High Priest on Yom Kippur will know where to enter and what his boundaries will be in that literally holier-than-thou space. Rashi gets to the poetry in it, seeing the protruding poles as symbols of God’s nipples and even references a verse from Song of Songs, understood by the rabbis as an expression of the mutual love between God and Israel.
But if Solomon’s Temple provides a feminine anthropomorphism of God’s nourishment, Zechariah, from the first day of Sukkot’s prophetic reading, provides a macho example. At the end of history in Zechariah’s view, at the end of the great war over Jerusalem, God will stand on the Mount of Olives and split it in two. Following God’s military boots’ appearance, there’s a verse that can be read in almost opposite ways depending on the vowels applied to a word that is repeated a few times.
The word is written in the masoretic text as Nastem which means ‘you escaped’ suggesting that the Judeans left via the new valley created by God’s crushing alteration of the topography around Jerusalem. But the official Aramaic translation and the Septuagint understand the word as Nistam which means ‘it was sealed’ implying that the adjustment of the hills and valleys actually sealed the normal escape routes and forced the citizens of Judah to remain in place while God performed His Military Might.
Let's Start Over Again
The placement of the valleys would be essential for the flowing of water, something that we see in the first section of the Torah we read this Shabbat, Bereisheet. The two chapters of Genesis have been noted for their very different treatments of the nature of Humankind and our creation, being saved best for last in chapter one but being crafted from the very mud of the earth in chapter two and much earlier in God’s creative process.
What we don’t notice so often is the different treatment of Water in the two chapters. In chapter one, a few commentators have noted that of all the things created, one essential ingredient seems to pre-exist -- Water. On the second day the Waters are separated but nowhere is it mentioned that it is created.
Chapter two has an interesting verse relating to the watering of the garden but that the rivers that run leave Eden and provide for the rest of what will be left for human habitation. Water comes from the one place we lose access to.
So Rain on Sukkot? Blessing or Curse? Or, as so often in Judaism, Yes.
Like comedy, it’s all in the timing.
Farmers will be very fortunate if the heavenly powers that be treat them as well as our sukkah experience has been this year.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!