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    The true joy of Sukkot

    Sukkot is called in Hebrew z’man simchatenu, “Our Time of Joy”.

    The Torah is the source of this description. Twice it uses the verb samach, to rejoice, in relation to Sukkot. It says vesamachta b’chaggecha, “You shall rejoice in your festival” (Deut. 16:14), and vehayita ach same’ach, “You shall be very joyful” (Deut. 16:15).

    The ancient rabbis explained that a major reason for linking Sukkot and simchah is the tradition of Simchat Bet HaSho’evah, the Joy of the Water Drawing.

    On the second night of the festival, there were processions and parades, singing and dancing, exuberance and exhilaration. Everyone was on the way to the Temple gates for the water libation.

    Understandable – but strange. So many other practices were part of Sukkot, yet only this one was regarded as the expression of genuine joy. The sages even say, “Whoever has not seen the rejoicing at the water-drawing has never seen real joy in his life” (Mishnah Sukkah 5:1).

    There was a political dimension to this statement.

    Pharisees and Sadducees were each pulling in different directions with their opposing philosophies. Each had their own support base. At times one group prevailed. At times the others seemed to win.

    In the end it was the Pharisees that carried the day and the Sadducees vanished from history.

    The conflict was symbolised in many ways by the water libation on Sukkot. The Pharisees took the ceremony seriously whilst the Sadducees disdained it.

    When one particular high priest wanted to show his allegiance to the Sadducees he poured the water on the ground and not the altar – and the shocked populace pelted him with etrogim!

    So when it was clear that the future was with the Pharisees, everyone emphasised the water-drawing.

    The deeper meaning was that though the Torah does not explicitly command this ceremony, it was developed by the Oral Law which the Pharisees championed, and by means of which the future of Judaism was made possible.

    It showed that the eternal principles of Judaism could be applied to the changing needs and kaleidoscope of each generation.

    So philosophy and politics combined to give the Water Drawing a special feeling. It made Sukkot the people’s festival, and the people enjoyed every moment of it.

    This still does not explain why a ceremony involving water should be emphasised so greatly.

    One answer is that without water the earth derives no nourishment and life dries up. Those who carried out the water-drawing were not rainmakers, simulating or mimicking the production of water. They were believers, who knew that everything depends on the bounties of God. And no Divine boon or bounty can rival water. Not only in the physical sense, but also spiritually and metaphorically.

    Isaiah says (55:1), “All who are thirsty, come for water” – and the rabbis say that water indicates Torah. As water nourishes the body, so Torah nourishes the soul.

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