Rav Kook Torah

Succoth: The Water-Drawing Celebration

During the evenings of the Succoth holiday, there was music, dancing, and even juggling in the holy Temple. This joyous activity was called the Simchat Beit-HaSho'eivah, the Water-Drawing Celebration. While usually wine was used in libation ceremonies, during the holiday of Succoth the kohanim poured water — drawn the previous night from Jerusalem’s Shiloach spring - next to the altar. This water-offering alludes to the Heavenly judgment for rain that takes place on Succoth.

Yet the nature of these evening celebrations is peculiar. They are called Simchat Beit-HaSho'eivah, from the word sho'eivah meaning ‘to draw water.’ This term indicates that the celebrations were not in honor of the actual mitzvah of pouring water on the Temple altar, but rather for the preparatory act of drawing out water from the spring. This appears quite illogical. Why did the people dance and rejoice during the nighttime preparations, and not during the actual Temple service that took place the following day?

Means and Ends

In fact, the Water-Drawing Celebration teaches us an important lesson. Generally speaking, we can divide up life’s activities into two categories: means and ends. We naturally distinguish between their relative importance, and look upon means as merely a prerequisite to attain a desired goal, but lacking any intrinsic value.

This divide between means and ends goes back to the very beginnings of creation. God commanded the earth to produce “fruit trees that make fruit” (Gen. 1:11). Not only were the trees to produce fruit, but they themselves were to be ‘fruit trees’ — the trees themselves were meant to taste like their fruit. However, the earth failed to bring forth “fruit trees that make fruit” ; it only produced “trees that make fruit” — trees that bear fruit, but lack any taste of their own.

Why does it matter that our fruit trees are tasteless?

This Midrash refers to this failure as the ‘Sin of the Earth,’ and it reflects a basic defect in the universe. The original ideal was that even within the means (the ‘tree’) one would be able to sense the same level of purpose and importance as the final goal (the ‘fruit'). Unfortunately, this ideal was beyond the world’s limited reality. The earth could only bring forth trees that bear fruit, but the trees themselves lack the flavor of their fruit.

Elevating the Means

While our current reality makes a sharp distinction between means and ends, nonetheless this original ideal was not completely lost to us. When we sanctify our actions and perform them altruistically, with a pure motive to fulfill God’s will, then even that which only facilitates a mitzvah is elevated to the level of the final goal. At this level of intent, even our preparations have a ‘taste’ of the sweetness and meaningfulness of the mitzvah itself. So it was with the Simchat Beit-HaSho'eivah celebrations: even in the preparatory act of drawing the water one could sense the joy and holiness of the actual mitzvah of offering the water on the Temple altar.

(Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah p. 110. See also Orot HaTeshuvah 6:7 (adapted in Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 21-22).)

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