Our God and God of our ancestors…
Remember Jacob, who crossed the Jordan’s water.
He bravely rolled the stone off the mouth of the well of water.
He wrestled with an angel made of fire and water,
And therefore You promised to be with him through fire and water.
For Jacob’s sake do not keep back water …
Remember the Twelve Tribes whom
You brought through the divided waters;
For whom You sweetened bitter water;
Their descendants’ blood was spilled like water.
Turn to us, God, who are surrounded by troubles like water.
For the Jewish people’s sake, do not hold back water
– an excerpt from the Prayer for Rain recited on Shmini Atzeret
We are well into the holiday of Sukkot and as Jews dine and entertain under a canopy of branches, they check the skies for threatening clouds. That’s ironic because on Shmini Atzeret, we recite a very special prayer, for rain. Today, the unique relationship between this holiday season, rain, water and the Jews.
Amnon Bazak points out in Sukkot and the Attributes of Justice that rain is often seen in the Torah as a blessing and its absence, a curse. If the people of Israel turn away to serve other gods, “the anger of God will burn against you, and He will shut up the heavens and you will have no rain” (Deuteronomy 11:17). But if the nation listens to God’s commandments, then “I shall give the rain of your land in its time; the early rain and the late rain” (Deuteronomy 11:14).
Sukkot is tied very closely to water. One of the happiest ceremonies in Jewish tradition took place during this holiday. While the Temple was standing, a special water pouring ceremony called Simchat Bet HaShoeva was held on Sukkot. The drawing of the water was performed with such intense joy that the following saying remains a testament: “One who had never witnessed the Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing had never seen true joy in his life.”
Reenactment of the Simchat Bet HaShoeva ceremony, Jerusalem, 2014
The Babylonian Talmud presents a dramatic narrative of the ceremony: Men of piety dancing, countless Levites playing on harps and trumpets; the sounding of the shofar at dawn; and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who “would take eight burning torches in one hand and toss them upwards; he tossed one and caught one, and never did one touch the other.”
We may know from the sources about the excitement associated with water and the holiday but how do we make that message relevant to contemporary audiences? The Ritualwell site suggests using some props (a long rope, water pitchers) to retell a classic story of rain from the Talmud after which participants are encouraged to donate food to a local food pantry.
Geula Gill and Oranim Zabar Israeli Troupe perform “Mayim Mayim”
Or you can get pumped by listening to a vintage recording of Mayim Mayim. In 1937, the popular song (and a few years later the accompanying dance) was created to celebrate the discovery of water in the desert after a seven year search. The song draws its lyrics from Isaiah 12:3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of deliverance.” If you aren’t sure of the dance steps, download the vintage document “MAYIM-MAYIM – Palestine Folk Dance Series.”
Once Sukkot is formally over and we are no longer at risk of getting soaked while dining outdoors, Jews pray for a fall and winter blessed with plenty of rain in the Land of Israel. Tefilat Geshem is a beautiful prayer that shows how crucial water has been to the heroes of the Torah. For example: “Remember the one (Moses) drawn forth in a bulrush basket from the water. They said, ‘He drew water and provided the sheep with water.’ At the time, Your treasured people thirsted for water, he struck the rock and out came water. For the sake of his righteousness, grant abundant water!” The prayer ends with the entire congregation praying “For a blessing, not a curse. For life and not for death. For abundance, not for famine.”
Jason Elbaum takes the water theme full circle. He suggests that as much as Sukkot (which ushers in the rainy season) is drawn to water, Passover (at the beginning of Israel’s dry season) is practically phobic toward the liquid. Just think about what happens to matzah if get stays moist too long as it’s being baked! To understand why these holidays have such diverging takes on water, read the Sukkot-Passover Rain Continuum.
Have the prayers for rain been effective? Check out the latest forecast at the Israel Meteorological Service website.