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When water wasn’t on tap we shook the lulav

As published in the Jewish News, written by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The rainy season in Israel begins with Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot. In the temple, a libation of water from the Spring of Siloah was added to the usual sacrifices, in a celebration called “Simchat Beit Ha’Sho’eva”.
Today we recite a special prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret, and praise God as our rain-giver in the Amidah until Pesach when we refer to the gentler dew.

Talmud tells us that on Sukkot the world is judged by rain – and we know that if the right kind of rain does not come at the right time, we are in danger of famine.  There are stories of rain-makers in Talmud, and the lulav also functions as a rain-maker,  the shaken leaves sounding like raindrops.

Rabbi Tanchum ben Hiyya said, “The falling of rain is greater than the giving of the Torah, for the giving of Torah was a joy only to Israel, while the falling of the rain is a rejoicing for all the world, including the cattle and the wild beasts and the birds.” Rabbi Levi ben Hiyyata said, “…without earth, there is no rain, and without rain, the earth cannot endure, and without either, humans cannot exist”.

Water features from our earliest texts. In Creation God separates the waters into their various locales, allowing dry land to emerge. Moses is drawn from the  Nile, the escaping Jews cross the Reed Sea, Miriam’s well follows the people in the desert. God is called “M’kor Mayim Hayim” – “Source of Living Waters”. Biblical Hebrew uses at least 6 words to describe rainfall, and Torah itself is equated with life-giving water.

Our tradition appreciates what we may overlook – that uncertain weather is problematic, that we are dependent on sunshine and rain at appropriate times, that our existence is predicated on a profound relationship with the land and with the environment.

On Simchat Beit Ha’Sho’eva the people celebrated extensively, accompanying the priests away from the Temple to the Siloah pool, and Mishnah describes dancing, juggling and music, that “whoever has not seen this celebration has not witnessed real joy”. Indeed, the partying was so ecstatic that tosefta tells us they had to build a separation between men and women for the event – the first “mechitza”.

This separation of genders, which was clearly temporary and only for this particular celebration, has become entrenched in some parts of the Jewish world, while the real lessons are diminished. We must be more aware of our place in the natural world, caring for the environment. We must remember that water is the basis of life and everyone needs to have enough.

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