Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shmini Atzeres and Water

During all days of Sukos (aside from the first) and Shmini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukos), there was a beautiful ceremony performed in the Temple. Recorded in the fourth chapter of tractate Sukah, ניסוך המים consisted of water being drawn from the שילוח stream and brought to the altar. The water was then poured through a spout on the copper altar. ספר התודעה points out that the celebration is called שמחת בית השואבה, placing the emphasis on the drawing of water. This teaches us that the main point of this celebration was the drawing of spiritual sustenance, רוח הקודש, from the sources of Godliness.

On the last day of Sukos, water makes a second appearance. It is this day that we begin to hint at our need for rain in תפילת גשם. (There are two places in our daily prayers where we mention rain. The first is in the blessing of אבות, in which we do not request rain, but praise God as the 'One who makes the wind blow, and causes the rain to fall'. Afterwards, in the section of our t'fillah where we petition God, we insert an actual request for rain, 'send dew and rain as a blessing upon the earth'.) We do not actually begin to pray for rain in the daily prayer ברכת השנים until the second month of the year, so as to give Jews who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem time to reach their homes in dry weather. However, since the season in which precipitation is needed starts with Sukos, we do begin to praise God as Giver of rain on Shmini Atzeres, in the blessing of אבות.

Why does water play such a central role on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, a day of rejoicing in the spiritual gifts God has given us?

In Jewish symbolism, water is a metaphor for Torah. Yeshaya (55:1) states, 'Let all those who are thirsty, go to water', and the Talmud (Bava Kama 82a) explains that this means that anyone who thirsts for meaning in life can find it in the teachings of the Torah. After leaving Egypt, the people cried out for water at Marah. The rabbis teach that for the Jewish people, going three days without Torah was insufferable; it was then that Moshe decreed that the Torah be read on Mondays and Thursdays, so that there should never again be three consecutive days without Torah-water being studied.

Indeed, the Rambam at the end of his synopsis of הלכות מקוואות, echoes the midrash, שיר השירים רבה. It states that, just as water cleans us of physical filth and ritual impurity, diligence in Torah purifies our mind and soul from intellectual and spiritual impropriety. The study of the word of God and the desire to become close to Him through His teaching is the most ethereal of our pursuits. Water, a liquid which arrives from heaven and, with a bit of heat, becomes a vapor to rise to the heights, is the perfect analogy for this.

Physical life could not exist without water. Rabbi Schorsch points out that the search for life on distant planets begins with a search for water. In the same way, spiritual existence is impossible without Torah. And so, Rabbi Chaim from Volhozin writes in נפש החיים, that, were it not for the study of the Torah, the wold would not be able to exist. He quotes Jer. 33:24, 'if not for my continued covenant day and night, the laws of nature would not have been established'. Nothing illustrates this point better than the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Brachos 61b) tells us:

פעם אחת גזרה מלכות הרשעה שלא יעסקו ישראל בתורה בא פפוס בן יהודה ומצאו לרבי עקיבא שהיה מקהיל קהלות ברבים ועוסק בתורה אמר ליה עקיבא אי אתה מתירא מפני מלכות הרשעה אמר לו אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה לשועל שהיה מהלך על גב הנהר וראה דגים שהיו מתקבצים ממקום למקום אמר להם מפני מה אתם בורחים אמרו לו מפני רשתות שמביאין עלינו בני אדם אמר להם רצונכם שתעלו ליבשה ונדור אני ואתם כשם שדרו אבותי עם אבותיכם אמרו לו אתה הוא שאומרים עליך פקח שבחיות לא פקח אתה אלא טפש אתה ומה במקום חיותנו אנו מתיראין במקום מיתתנו על אחת כמה וכמה אף אנחנו עכשיו שאנו יושבים ועוסקים בתורה שכתוב בה (דברים ל) כי הוא חייך ואורך ימיך כך אם אנו הולכים ומבטלים ממנה עאכ"ו

When the Romans forbade the study of Torah on the pain of death, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach. A man asked if he was not concerned for his life! Rabbi Akiva answered with a parable: Some fish were swimming away from fishermen's nets. A fox saw them and said, why are you swimming? Come out on land and live with me in peace! The fish said, fool! If we are in danger in water, the element of world that allows us to live, how much more so will we die if we leave our life-giving medium! Fish cannot physically exist without water, and Rabbi Akiva declares that Jews cannot live spiritually without Torah.

The study of the Torah, must be done with the intent of enhancing this world and contributing to the revelation of God in it. In fact, the Talmud (Nedarim 81a) states that even though the Jews of the second Temple studied Torah, they were punished because they did not recite the blessing on it. The sin was that they saw Torah as a scholarly pursuit, but one devoid of spiritual and practical application. We must study and fulfill the Torah not as academia, but as a way to interface with God and serve Him, molding the world into one that better matches His plans.

In describing many קרבנות, the Torah calls them לחם אשה, food-fuel for the fires of God. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the קרבנות remind us to use our existence in this world as an opportunity to provide fuel for the service of God. We are on earth to do God's will, and bring the world to a better place, by following the Torah. And so, when we pour water on the altar in the ceremony of ניסוך המים, the symbol is clear. We are to use even our most ethereal and spiritual of pursuits, symbolized by water, for the service of God.

Perhaps this was the mistake of the Samaritan high priest, who, in the fourth chapter of Sukah poured the water on his own feet, instead of on the altar. He did not realize that spiritual pursuits are not for us, but ultimately must also be brought as a קרבן on the מזבח.

And so, for seven days, we draw water and pour it on the altar, showing ourselves and God that we plan to serve Him through the very life force, the Torah. And after this, we ask Him, on Shmini Atzeres, to provide us with rain. The Vilna Gaon quotes the kabalistic concept that in any venture, first we are required to put in our best try (איתערותא דלתתא), and after showing God the path we want to take, he inspires us from above (איתערותא דילעילא). Through ניסוך המים, we demonstrate our desire to, as ספר התודעה taught above, draw divine inspiration from our resources. Only after this attempt can we be bold enough to ask Hashem to shower us with rain and inspiration from above.

Demonstrating the interdependence of the physical and spiritual realms of our existence, the water celebrations trade places. On the Sukos holiday, which represents God's physical preservation of our nation, we demonstrate our willingness to use our abilities to plumb the depths of Torah in the ceremony of ניסוך המים. On Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, we celebrate God's spiritual preservation of Israel, and ask him to continue to rain life-giving precipitation upon our crops and aqueducts. אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ, אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה.