I have written many times about the inherent tensions in Judaism. It seems we need them to be a part of our faith, our understandings, our practices. So much so, that when there is no apparent tension, it appears the priests and rabbis sometimes sought to create them.
In the Torah reading for Sukkot, which include the biblical references to this holiday we read:
seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord
And in Num 29:12-39, we have an elongated description of the ritual sacrifices of Sukkot, and it’s 70! (count ’em) 70! sacrifices. That’s a lot of fire offerings.
Thus, one might view Sukkot as a holiday strongly connected with fire. Yet, if anything, it is with water that Sukkot is inextricably linked, especially through the ritual of the water libation that was performed daily in the Temple during Sukkot.
If one views Sukkot as a harvest-derived holiday, then a connection to water, and the ensuing prayers for a good rainy season, seem to connect. The rabbis, of course, go out of their way to give the practice of the water libation and Sukkot’s connection to water a textual basis. The commandment to perform the water libation is derived from the oral Torah mi Sinai, and appears in the Gemara. It even attempts to link the water libation to the text of the Torah by positing three "additional letters" appearing in Numbers 29:12-39 that spell "mayim: (water.) Thus, in rabbinic tradition, it has as much basis as if the commandment appeared in the written Torah.
So here we have this tension between the need for much fire on Sukkot for the sacrifices, and the need for water for the water libation. Fire-water. Great tension.
Rabbis, modern pos’kim, and scholars have a field day with Sukkot and water. There are connections to the four species, references to water being the very source of life, etc.
So what is it that we do on Sukkot to represent either the missing fire sacrifices or the water libation? Nothing. Therein lies yet another tension. In many (but not all cases) when a Temple ritual is obviated by the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis manage to find a suitable substitute. At the very least, they construct a ritual that has some small connection to what was lost.
Yet, fond as we are on Sukkot to speak about the water libation (and to a lesser degree, the 70 sacrifices requiring fire) I’ll be darned if I can think of one thing we do in our modern observance of the holiday to illustrate these lost practices. Granted, the waving of the lulav can been seen as representative of the wave offerings in the Temple. Perhaps it can be seen as a substitute for the sacrifices, but it hardly seems fitting substitute for the sacrifice of a whole lot of bulls. (Perhaps the Hallel is that substitute?)
I guess, if we’re Torah purists and reject the rabbinical addition of the water libation, we can view our prayers, the lulav, the sukkah itself, and the Hallel as substitutes for the sacrifices. So why haven’t adherents to the rabbinic tradition sought a substitute for or a ritual connection the water libation? Why aren’t we pouring out water in our Sukkot? Or, at the very least, some ritual involving pouring water over a table or something representing where we eat? I can understand why setting our sukkot on fire and then putting it out with water never became a practice, but there must be some way we can bring symbols for the fire sacrifices and the water libation back in our Sukkot practice.
As Jews, we need tension in our beliefs and practices. Sukkot has some-the tension of "partial" shelter is one. I think Sukkot needs a few more poles of tension.
So that’s my challenge to all of you, my creative friends, for this hag. Can we find a way to bring fire and water into our Sukkot celebrations? It’s gonna be a hot and cold time in the old town tonight.
Before I close, an interesting side note. Of course, the title of this musing had me singing the old Jame’s Taylor song, "Fire and Rain." In it, he sings:
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end…
and in the haftarah for Sukkot I, from Zechariah, we read:
In that day, there shall be neither sunlight or cold moonlight, but there shall be a continuous day–only the L"rd knows when–of neither day nor night, and there shall be light at eventide. (Zech. 14:6)
And, of course, we can always take the next two lines of the song as metaphor for our relationship with the Divine:
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again
Of course, we’ll ignore the second verse about that Jewish carpenter guy lookin’ down on him. Or that the song is about the death of a friend, Taylor’s addictions, and his treatment for that. (And not, as the urban legend goes, about some mythical girlfriend who died in a plane crash – see http://www.snopes.com/music/songs/firerain.asp
In yet another odd connection, the haftarah speaks of a time when
fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter. (Zech. 14:8)
This lovely passage is followed by the well known
bayom hahu y’hiyeh Ad"onai ekhad, ush’mo ekhad – On that day G"d shall be One and G"d’s name shall be One. (Zech 14:9)
And I couldn’t think of a better place to stop.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameakh,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester