As people ascend to the main exhibition halls in the newly renovated Israel Museum they walk alongside water cascading down a constructed rivulet. James Snyder, the museum’s director, explained its symbolism to the group of rabbis. The water cleanses. We enter the exhibitions with unencumbered souls. Water washes away whatever we bring in and we enter the museum with open minds.
In ancient times sacrifices were offered on the heights of the Temple. On Sukkot especially the sacrifices reached their zenith. This week’s Torah portion offers details of the Sukkot sacrifices. 70 bulls were slaughtered on the altar, in addition to 14 rams, 98 lambs and seven goats. It was a bloody week long celebration. At the conclusion of Sukkot was the long since forgotten holiday of Simhat Beit HaShoeva, the water drawing celebration. Copious amounts of water were poured over the Temple and its altar.
In a land where water is so scarce it is remarkable to reflect on the central ritual of this holiday. At the conclusion of the dry season and prior to the beginning of the winter rains water is dumped as if it were a plentiful commodity. My teacher and the chair of Hebrew University’s Bible Department, Yisrael Knohl, offers two possible explanations. There was the practical and the philosophical. On the one hand this much water was required to clean the Temple. After so many sacrifices the Temple required a thorough washing. On the other hand what could be a better statement of faith than to dump out water before the winter rains (hopefully) began. It was if our people said, “God, we firmly believe that You will soon provide water for our crops and our rituals.”
It is interesting to ponder the fact that whereas water figured so prominently in ancient times, and in this land of Israel, it is no longer prominent in our rituals, especially in Reform circles. In traditional homes the mikvah, the ritual bath is still observed as well as netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of hands before eating. We by contrast only add the prayer for rain to our liturgy, beginning at the conclusion of Sukkot. This additional line connects us to the seasons of the land of Israel. Is this single line enough?
This past week I hiked the streets of Jerusalem and the Old City. In short order I was reminded of the necessity of always bringing plenty of water to withstand Jerusalem’s summer heat. I longed for abundant water. It occurred to me that it is no wonder that here water became central to our rituals. It is unfortunate that we take water for granted and no longer give such prominence to its preciousness. We drink it, bathe in it, play in it, but no longer pray with it. Perhaps if we restored the centrality of the land of Israel to our philosophy we would regain the importance of water to our ritual life. Then again perhaps if we restored the importance of water to our rituals we would rekindle the importance of the land of Israel to our faith.
Yet it is hard to appreciate water living in an area where it is sometimes too abundant. It is true that our tradition assigns no blessing over the drinking of water. It is used in blessings, but we recite no blessing over it as we do with other foods and drinks. There is no blessing because it is a blessing. And here in Israel one appreciates better the blessing of mayyim hayyim, living waters.
According to the Talmud one has not experienced true joy until one celebrates Simhat Beit HaShoeva. What faith it is indeed to pour water over every inch of the Temple precinct at the hoped for onset of the rainy season. So with our ancestors let us dance and celebrate that God will again provide for us these living waters. And let us as well regain a better appreciation of mayyim hayyim. Let us reclaim the centrality of the land of Israel and its city of Jerusalem.
Let us open our minds to the power of water and the beauty of Israel.