Portion of the Week / Speaking Through Raindrops

The myths, the agricultural theme, the concept of a Temple festival and the messianism - all essentially merge into a single motif that repeatedly appears in the Sukkot liturgy: rain.

The mythological sources of the festival of Sukkot are meager and unclear. Do they relate in some way to the metaphorical - or actual, physical - sukkah booths that God built for the Israelites in the wilderness, or did Sukkot actually start out as an agricultural holiday? Perhaps the whole story began in the Temple in Jerusalem? Or, as depicted in the final chapter of the Book of Zechariah (the haftarah read on the first day of the festival ), is this a universal messianic festival that is supposed to be celebrated in Jerusalem after the war of Gog and Magog, together with all the nations of the world?

The myths, the agricultural theme, the concept of a Temple festival and the messianism - all essentially merge into a single motif that repeatedly appears in the Sukkot liturgy: rain. For rain is the means by which God speaks to his children. The unique climate of the Land of Israel, whose sole source of water is rain, is interpreted throughout the Bible as the embodiment of an ongoing dialogue between God and the earth's inhabitants: "but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down; a land which the Lord thy God careth for; the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year" (Deuteronomy 11:11-12 ).

During the Temple period, observance of a central mitzvah revolved around the sukkah booth and the festival's four species (the lulav, the etrog and the myrrh and willow branches ), binding them together into a single mythological system - connected with water. On each day of Sukkot, the priests would descend to the Pool of Siloam to draw water from it, then ascend to pour it over the altar in the Temple. This libation ritual, performed before a large audience, became one of the holiday's chief features during that era.

Today, we are reminded that this is a rain festival by the liturgy of Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, which is considered a separate festival. (In Israel, it is celebrated simultaneously with Simhat Torah; in the Diaspora, the two are observed separately, Shmini Atzeret coming first. ) On this eighth day, the words in the Amidah prayer are changed from "morid hatal" ("[God] who causes the dew to fall" ) to "mashiv haru'ah umorid hageshem" ("[God] who makes the wind blow and causes the rain to fall" ). This is the official declaration of the end of summer and the beginning of the rainy season.

In the Mishna's Tractate Sukkah, we read, "On all seven days [of Sukkot] we make the sukkah our permanent residence, and make our home our temporary one." By being in the booth - with walls easily penetrated by wind and water, and a roof through which the stars can be seen - we are forced to expose ourselves to the changing of the seasons. What is permanent becomes temporary, and vice versa.

But what happens if it rains early, at the start of the holiday? The Mishna continues, "If rain is falling, when are we permitted to leave the sukkah? When the rain ruins the stew." That is, if there is so much rainfall that it ruins a festival meal, we can return to our homes.

The mythological meaning of this incident is explained in the Mishna via a parable: "A slave wants to pour water into his master's cup but the master instead throws the contents of the pitcher in the slave's face" (Tractate Sukkah, Mishna 2:9 ). One's relations with God are thus presented in interpersonal terms. The ritual of libation with water being brought to the altar is compared to a slave who wants to pour water into his master's cup. However, the rain that falls before the prayer for rain has been recited, and that penetrates the sukkah and ruins the stew, can be compared to a pitcher whose contents the master throws in the slave's face.

Thus, the libation and the rainfall are "translated" into acts reflecting the communication and relations between master and servant. The result is a circulatory phenomenon, whereby the water the slave wants to present his master is hurled back in his face. The libation and the rain both represent an interpersonal relationship. The master is unprepared to receive his slave's services, and the rain, which is God's means of communicating with his children, is transformed from a tangible response to human prayers into an expression of anger and insult.

If one did not leave his home to sit in his sukkahs, rainfall would not be interpreted this way: The entry into the sukkah and the exposure of the stew to the danger of being ruined by rainfall give the rain a new meaning, and essentially expand the human dialogue with God. From now on, if rain falls during the festival, it will be a sign that can be compared to a pitcher of water whose contents are thrown in one's face. However, if rain falls only after Sukkot, it will assume a positive, biblical significance.

In effect, when one leaves his home and declares that his temporary abode, the sukkah, is his permanent place of residence, one is enabling God to express his anger through rainfall. It is customary to think of one's dwelling in the shadow of the booth as a metaphorical act, expressing the idea of sitting in the "shadow of faith" - faith in God that he will not cause the rain to fall, faith as a reflection of a solid identity, faith as an expression of confidence in the way God reacts to our actions.

But the parable of the master and the servant raises another possibility when it comes to interpreting one's faith while he sits in the sukkah: that one is not expressing a belief that God will not make rain fall, but rather is stretching and expanding the range of one's communication with him. One's presence in the sukkah enables God to speak to him through rainfall. If one waits to do so until the festival is over and has already begun to pray for rain - that will be a positive sign. However, if he causes the rain to fall during the holiday and it is so strong that it ruins one's meal, that will be a sign of his anger.

There is thus an entire dialogue going on here, offering a possibility to express both love and anger. The faith that is expressed in our sitting in the sukkah is not a permanent element of one's identity; it is the beginning of a conversation. It does not constitute total confidence in what will come; instead, it is an act that undermines confidence.