I dedicate these divrei Torah l’ilui nishmas all those who perished in the Las Vegas concert tragedy, and as a zechus for healing, strength, blessing and salvation for their survivors.
Sukkot, the Chag known as “zman simchateinu – the season of our rejoicing”, is a celebration of unadulterated joy, shared between and joining together every member of the Jewish People in perfect unity, as we’re enwrapped in a deep-seated trust in G-d… all timeless themes of this holiday.
One unforgettable milestone in our history, that fused these 3 core elements (joy, unity, and bitachon) of the festival, was called “Simchat Beit Hashoeivah”, rendered ‘The Celebration of the Water-Drawing’. It was a ceremony that held a brilliant spot in the service in the Beit Hamikdash during Sukkot.
While the Beit Hamikdash stood, all korbanos (offerings) were accompanied by Nesachim, libations (of wine) that were poured over the Altar’s surface. But in the Sukkot Avoda, fresh water was poured over the Mizbeach, as a festive added ritual. This was preceded by much preparation, and was conducted with tremendous exhilaration and zest, as described vividly in the Gemara. In the early morning of the Chag, daily, a delegation of Levi’im would descend the Temple Mount to the stream of Shiloach, and draw the precise measurement of the water. As they returned to the Temple premises, a serenade of trumpet blasts was sounded. As night drew near, Kohanim would ignite impressive candelabras, which gloriously illuminated Jerusalem like noon. The nation would gather in the Beis haMikdash (the women provided with their own distinguished balcony seating), and would gaze on as the Kohanim performed the offerings, and scholars exuberantly danced and sang. Of course, everyone was delighted and uplifted by the Levi’im’s beautiful music. The Talmud (Sukkah, chapter 5) declares: “He who has not seen the Water-Drawing Celebration has never seen joy in his life”
The Torah tells us “you shall rejoice on your holiday” (Devarim 16:14), but we still may feel compelled to ask: “Why did a simple drawing and pouring of water cause such elation to ensue? Why would it constitute such a unique event?”
It’s now time to sift our way to the essence of this experience.
The source for this mitzvah, of the water-libation, rests with the Torah SheBa’al Peh (the Oral Torah), also handed down by Moshe Rabbeinu from G-d at Sinai, but not explicitly commanded or detailed in the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses). With this in mind, the Jewish people of the time outwardly expressed their unwavering devotion to the will of Hashem, even if the mitzvah wasn’t expressly given over in the Chumash. Branching from such commitment was a deepened awareness of G-d and the soul, which was so great, that along with the simple drawing of water, the nation drew Ruach Hakodesh (Divine insight and inspiration), from which in turn sprang the profound ecstasy that was trademark of the day.
And then came the dance, music and song that are forever unmatched; we can truly say it was divine. To paraphrase Mrs. Laber in one of our amazing JGU evening workshops for girls: When you contemplate the greatness of Hashem, you are moved to sing (of Him and His glory)!
Water in and of itself bears profound symbolic significance. Torah is compared to water, and Rabbi Akiva perfectly summed up this comparison in his famous saying, that ‘A Jew without Torah is like a fish without water.” We can’t live without Torah– there isn’t a Jew without the Torah! Torah, Chassidic masters explain, is indeed G-d’s transcendent Wisdom, but He transmits it to us in parable, that we people can grasp and integrate. The supernal Wisdom is garbed in physical terms, scenarios, and commandments, allowing the physical of the world to serve as a bridge, springboard, and stepping stone, leading us to truly connect with the Divine, for this is indeed the essence of every single mitzvah, and every single word of Torah and its study. It flows down from on high, and gushes forth from its innerness, in a way like the crystalline water that beautifully poured from the pitcher raised high in the Kohein’s hand.
The soul of every Jew is naturally drawn to this spirit of wisdom and its Source. To share from the Chassidic masters once more: The exuberant water celebration symbolized a totally sincere, profound and essential bond with G-d, so deep that it’s like water– it sustains all life, but whose ‘taste’ cannot be described. An experience of fusion so powerful, that it’s impossible to encapsulate it in merely intellectual, thought-out words. All that it can give birth to is an unrestrained cry of joy, a scream from the depths of the heart, a song of sheer delight that breaks all barriers.
To quote the Alter Rebbe, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi (a.k.a the Baal HaTanya): “Words are the quill of the heart, while melody is the quill of the soul.”
Moshe Rabbeinu gave his final words to the Bnei Yisroel before his death, some of the most famous marking their place in Parshat Haazinu, which we’ve recently recounted in the Torah reading. Moshe gives over a fine portion of wisdom to the people in poetic lyric, and it’s known as the Song of Moses. He understood that the people would perhaps adhere more faithfully to his teaching this way, for when wisdom is given over by means of a song, it is something that will be seared into the memory, resound in the heart, and not just borne upon the lips. He declared “Ya’arof kamatar lik’chi… – May my teaching drop like the rain…”(Devarim 32:2). The Torah that’s been transmitted, to this day, will descend and nourish as a blessing and gift, like the rain from heaven. (At the end of Sukkot, we celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, and on this Chag, for the first time of the year, we add into our prayers a plea for rain: “Mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem – Who makes the wind blow and the rain descend.” Perhaps while we sway together in prayer, we can keep in mind the spiritual counterpart of this blessing.)
Sukkot is a fine time during which we can cultivate our trust in G-d, and His providence and protection. We remember how He guided us out of Egypt and sustained us for 40 long years in the desert, a young and green nation. We realize that if G-d wasn’t on our side, survival for such an extended period of time in the harsh terrain is virtually impossible! In a similar approach, albeit in quite a different setting, we leave the comfort and security of our built and furnished houses to reside in our Sukkahs, in which we eat, sleep, learn, and bond. We come face-to-face with our own vulnerability, and the transient nature of the material world, as we ‘settle in’ our simple makeshift homes for the week. We place our trust in Hashem that all will be well, and melt into His all-encompassing embrace.
On Sukkot, we’re surrounded by a shelter, and Hashem’s protection, boosting our awareness that everything and all is in His hands. What does the power of song have in common with the concept of Sukkah? A song, too, can surround you; the words and melody of a beloved song can envelop you, sustaining, enlivening, and energizing you in a time of pain or darkness. Think about it… Have you ever heard stories about people discovering or uncovering their forgotten or hidden past, after a familiar song from their youth whispers to them, echoing in their head? Envision the unconquerable mothers during the Holocaust, beacons in the black concentration camps, singing softly to their children wrapped in their arms, giving them maybe one last message of hope. Their song was a last vestige of warmth and light, as they struggled to provide a quasi-shelter of good memories for their hearts and minds, even as evil encircled them.
Song is a gift for everyone, for every occasion and all time. In times of joy, your song can increase the intensity and feeling of the moment, and spread the energy to others. In times of suffering, if you can still sing, praise G-d, and bring joy to others, you unsheathe the light of your soul to the entire world.
The Gerrer Rebbe, R’ Simcha Bunim Alter zt”l, answered a very interesting question that was once posed. In the first three stanzas of the prayer-song Shalom Aleichem, that we sing on Leil Shabbos, even before Kiddush, we greet the angels that escorted us home from shul. We proceed to welcome them in, and then request their blessing. A fine reception, no? But surprisingly, in the fourth and final stanza, “Tzeischem L’Shalom”, we bid them farewell, and to “go in peace”. Why do we send them off, instead of inviting them to stay, and grace us and our home with their holy presence? The Gemara (Sanhedrin) teaches that each day of the week, the privilege of Shirah is bestowed upon the angels, as they sing praise to G-d. That is, with the exception of Shabbos. On Shabbos, Hashem transfers the honor to us! Us, the mortal beings of a lower world! Therefore, before commencing our beautiful, traditional Shabbos zemiros, we bid the angels farewell, so that we might spare them the righteous ‘pain’ and ‘envy’ they will feel, listening to us sing together to Hashem, while “their lips are sealed”. What a stunning explanation, that further emphasizes the gift and profundity of Song.
Since the Beit Hamikdash does not presently stand, the Avodah and Korbanos have been discontinued until its rebuilding. Although we no longer have the custom of the water-nesach, numerous Jewish communities have continued the festivities of music, song, and dance throughout the nights of Sukkot. One of my teachers fondly recalls a band playing and her neighborhood dancing to the music until 6 o’clock the next morning! Sukkot is a time of unity, a time to celebrate the individuality of our people, and realize that we are in fact incomplete without one another. The fortunate and the impoverished, too, are no different from one another as they sit in a simple hut enjoying a good meal together. We’re all bound as one in our faith and trust in Hashem. And through the power of song, a product and masterpiece of the soul, the entire colorful spectrum of the Jewish People is spanned, and we’re joined together. Upon the wings of song, we’re elevated to the greatest, most beautiful heights.
And so we prepare to launch the newest Jewish Girls Unite book, be”H (with G-d’s help) this coming February/Adar! This is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a songbook entitled “Voices in Harmony”. It will be the culmination of all the songs we hold dear in Jewish Girls Unite, those most popular and those yet to be fully discovered, from numerous gifted composers. Musical tapestries woven of timeless words and heartfelt melodies, these songs draw us together in deep thought and bursting feeling, like nothing else. They simply bind us as one, and lift us up high. This book, a collection, will be a magnificent treasure to bring into your home, and to present as a gift to others. It will highlight your joy, and assist you through difficult times. Song is yours to make music to Hashem in your own unique way. Song is a most purposeful resource you were given, to light up the world.
רַֽנְּנ֣וּ צַ֖דִּיקִים בַּֽיהֹוָ֑ה לַ֜יְשָׁרִ֗ים נָאוָ֥ה תְהִלָּֽה:
הוֹד֣וּ לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה בְּכִנּ֑וֹר בְּנֵ֥בֶל עָ֜שׂ֗וֹר זַמְּרוּ־לֽוֹ:
שִׁ֣ירוּ ל֖וֹ שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ הֵיטִ֥יבוּ נַ֜גֵּ֗ן בִּתְרוּעָֽה:
Sing praises to the Lord, O you righteous ones; for the upright, praise is fitting. Give thanks to the Lord with a harp; with a lyre of ten melodies make music to Him. Sing to Him a new song; play well with joyful shouting.
— The Messenger Bird