under a very large sukkah, shere raises her hands up as she leads a circle of people in prayer
Kohenet (Hebrew priestess) Taya Shere of Berkeley leads a Shabbat morning service at Wilderness Torah's 2016 Sukkot on the Farm. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Let’s revive this ancient Sukkot rain ritual

It’s always incredible to see our houses of worship overflowing on Yom Kippur, a powerful time of teshuvah — spiritual return, relational reconciliation and personal realignment. It has become our most significant day of observance.

Yet this was not always the case. When our Temple stood in Jerusalem, Yom Kippur was preparation for the most important festival of the year, Sukkot.

We once lived as shepherds and farmers upon the land, which “soaks up its water from the rains of heaven” (Deut. 11:11). Water is life. In ancient times we relied on rain for our basic survival. The rabbis, for whom Torah became everything, acknowledge this simple truth, “rain is greater than Torah” (Ta’anit 7a).

Today we have all but forgotten this simple truth, because water just comes out of the faucet. In 1949, Aldo Leopold prophetically wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” He should have added, “and that water comes from the faucet.”

Our sages understood this well. During the Days of Awe, the rabbis teach we are each individually judged, compelling us to engage in the internal, relational and spiritual purification so we may be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. Only after we were realigned individually and collectively did we turn to our prayers for rain, for on Sukkot, the world is judged for water (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

The centrality of our influence on the rains can be found in our central prayer, the Shema. After the prayer Ahava Raba reminds us of God’s unbounded love, we declare God’s unity in the Shema, and are instructed to love God in the V’ahafta, we learn in the Shema’s second paragraph that if we love like God, then the rains will come in their proper time providing so we may “eat and be satisfied.” However, we are warned that if we fail to love like this, we will not receive the rains.

It is hard to fathom, with our modern mind, that we humans can influence the rain, but our ancients knew we could. An entire book of the Talmud is dedicated to this topic. Ta’anit (Fasts) is dedicated to how we bring rain during drought. In one famous legend, Honi the Circle Maker brings the rains for the people during extreme drought by drawing and stepping into a circle on the ground, and praying to God until it rained. (Ta’anit 23a). Honi is just one of many such legends.

RELATED: Ecstasy on the farm — Wilderness Torah’s earth-based Sukkot

Avinu Malkeinu, our most powerful Yom Kippur prayer, derives from such a tale. During another great drought, Rabbi Akiva descends before the ark and chants Avinu Malkeinu for the first time, and the rain immediately fell. When the sages ask why Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not, a Divine Voice answered, “God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature by sending rain” (Ta’anit 25b). Hence the connection between Yom Kippur as preparation for rain prayers during Sukkot.

A glimpse at our ancient Sukkot water drawing rites just may convince you. In the Temple courtyard, four huge golden candelabras were erected and lit with enormous wicks, fashioned from worn-out priest garments soaked in olive oil. The flames were so high “there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the light of the place of water drawing” (Mishnah Sukkot 5:3).

All day and night, sages juggled fire, sang and danced while musicians of all kinds played. The Sages teach, “anyone who has never seen the rejoicing at the House of Water Drawing, has never seen joy in all one’s days” (Mishnah Sukkot 5:1).

Each day during this Sukkot ritual, a priest carrying a golden flask led a parade to the spring Shiloach, drew water and carried it to the special Temple altar. Shofars sounded and he poured the water on a special stone; a ceremony of sympathetic magic to invoke the winter rains.

Accompanying this water libation, the priests would bring 70 offerings to the Temple fire. Why 70? As a prayer for the 70 nations of the world, Rabbi Eliezer explains (Sukkah 55b), to bring forgiveness for the entire world so that the rain will fall all over the earth (Rashi).

In this time when climate change is all too real, devastating fires an ever-present threat to our communities, the admonishment from the Shema feels all too real.

I call us to reexamine our ancient birthright, our relationship to the rain. It is time to renew Sukkot as a prayer for rain and for a balanced ecology for the entire world. Like our ancients, let’s gather in the name of water and pray for the nations of the world.

This Sukkot, on Sunday Sept. 30, the seventh and final day called Hoshana Rabba, “the great pleading,” Wilderness Torah will gather in Tilden Park of the East Bay for a daylong Sukkot In-Gathering.

This event, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., will be filled with fun for the whole family! Make your own lulav, learn ritual music, create rain dance regalia and dive into a Sukkot text study. Meanwhile, kids will experience their own village fun with crafts, games, and adventure. Then, all together, we will also enact our version of the ancient Hoshana Rabba rain prayers with shofars, water pouring, lulav waving and pouring out our hearts together — with our prayers for the world.

Rabbi Zelig Golden
Rabbi Zelig Golden

Rabbi Zelig Golden is the founding director of Wilderness Torah. He received rabbinic ordination from ALEPH, Alliance for Jewish Renewal, supported by the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and was previously ordained Maggid by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. He holds a Masters in Jewish Studies from the Graduate Theological Union. He previously worked as an environmental lawyer.