The Sefat Emet (R. Judah Aryeh Leib of Gur,1847-1905) offers many gems for deepening our understanding of the festival of Sukkot. He opens one drashah with reference to the “joy of water-drawing” ritual (simhat beit hasho’eivah) which was conducted in the Temple on these days. Mishnah Sukkah (5:1) states that, “one who has not witnessed this ritual has never seen joy in their life.” The Talmud continues with descriptions of the music, and torches, and dancing and acrobatics that accompanied this event. Water would be drawn from the Shiloah spring and carried up to the Temple, then poured onto the altar. Presumably this celebration of water was something akin to a rain dance.
But for Sefat Emet, the “drawing” is actually a spiritual intake—a breathing in of the holy spirit. Just as God shapes the first human in Genesis and then breathes the breath of life into Adam, so too do we become infused with divine spirit on Sukkot. Rosh HaShanah was the day of new life, and Yom Kippur of atonement and release from our old failures. But Sukkot is a time to infuse our lives with renewal, with meaning, and with joy. “Rejoicing over the house of drawing” refers not only to water, but also to the intake of divine spirit.
Sefat Emet continues that once a person has drawn in the human spirit, they become a נפש חיה, a living being, which is translated into Aramaic by Onkeles as, “a speaking soul.” Just as a child who begins to speak emerges from a state of absorbing information and begins to communicate, so too is Sukkot a time for new life—communicated by speech. When we begin to speak words of Torah, then the divine spirit within us becomes activated. A prophet is primarily a speaker (ניב/נביא), who gives expression to the divine spirit within. Sefat Emet believes that even if we are not prophets, that this expression of spirit in speech is the primary task of Sukkot. Continue reading