Change that will last: the message of Sukkot

The Water-Drawing Celebration explained.

YOUTH BUILD a Succa in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
YOUTH BUILD a Succa in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) draw to a close, the Jewish calendar immediately greets us with festive Sukkot. Radically opposite in tone and mindset, the Days of Awe can be categorized as introspective and almost somber, whereas Sukkot is a celebration of unbridled joy. As it says, “And you shall rejoice in your festivals, and you will be only happy” (Deutoronomy, 16:14).
What is the connection, and more importantly, what is the message to be found in the close juxtaposition of these radically different days? Perhaps the answer can be found in the unique ceremony and celebration which took place in the Temple every evening during the entire Sukkot holiday, called Simhat Beit-Hasho’eva, “the Water-Drawing Celebration.” Though throughout the rest of the year the Temple service used only wine in the various libation ceremonies, during Sukkot the Kohanim (priests) poured water next to the altar in its place. This water was drawn the night before the daytime ceremony from Jerusalem’s Pool of Shiloah, and the celebration of the water drawing was accompanied with great joy, dance, song and fanfare. So festive was this celebration that the Talmud relates, “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing has not seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah, 5a).
Rabbi Chanan Morrison, in his work Gold from the Land of Israel, presents a fascinating perspective on this unique service from the commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi in Israel during the British Mandate period. Rav Kook explains that the name of this celebration – Simhat Beit-Hasho’eva – comes from the root of the word “sho’evah” meaning “to draw water.” From this we learn that the essence of this celebration, therefore, was not for the main event of pouring the water libation on the Temple’s altar the next day, but rather the celebration was for the preparatory act of drawing the water. Rav Kook writes that on surface level, this would seem to be counter intuitive. Why did the nation celebrate during the nighttime preparations, and not during the actual libation service which took place the next day? The answer comes to teach us an important life lesson and to correct a very common fault in human behavior. According to Rav Kook, a person’s daily activities can be divided into two categories: means and ends. The “ends” are the final goals, the final dreams and final aspirations of how we want our lives to develop and the overarching destination point that we aspire to reach. The “means” are the daily steps and small tasks that we undertake in order to fulfill and bring to fruition the ends which we desire. Unfortunately, it has become habit to place importance and value only on the end goal, and to our detriment we fail to see the intrinsic value in the means which we utilized in our journey.
To divide between means and ends is human nature, it goes back to the very beginnings of creation. In the story of Creation, God commanded the Earth to produce “fruit trees that make fruit” (Genesis 1:11). This is explained to mean that not only were the original species of trees supposed to produce fruit, but they themselves were to be “fruit” – meaning their bark would have the same taste as the fruit that they were producing. However, the Earth failed in the task to bring forth “fruit trees that make fruit” and instead carried out the commandment as “trees that make fruit.” Meaning, the trees produced fruits but they did not themselves manifest the taste of the fruits.
The original intent and message that God wished to impart to mankind is that even within the means – the Tree – one should be able to sense the same level of purpose and importance as the final end and goal – the Fruit. However, the Earth could not fulfill this ideal, and a valuable spark was lost; it now falls to mankind to restore this lost aspect of Creation.
With this idea, we can understand the connection between the Days of Awe and Sukkot. The Days of Awe’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the time in which we plan and establish our end goals for the coming year. But those lofty ends are not accomplished overnight; they require diligence, toil and consistent hard work in order to blossom. And if the focus is only on the goal, then one can become disheartened and fall short. It is imperative to understand that there is also value to the experience of the means as well. Therefore, the Simhat Beit-Hasho’eva, a central theme and focus of the holiday of Sukkot, arrives immediately after the intensity of the Days of Awe. It comes to remind us that the “drawing of the water,” the very journey that we undertake in order to fulfill our desired goals, must be recognized and celebrated with full minds and hearts. It is not only in the end, but rather the means to the end, that will effectively bring about change that will truly last.
The author is a Jerusalem-based rabbi and Jewish educator. He served as a non-commissioned officer in the IDF Rabbinate, and is the author of the book A People, A Country, A Heritage – Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel.