Simchat Beit HaSho'eiva: PLAYING WITH FIRE - Guest article by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students, Diaspora Yeshiva
All the festivals are times of rejoicing, but only Sukkot is called ZMAN SIMCHATEINU (season of our happiness). While today we immediately think of Simchat Torah when it comes to joy, the Mishna (Sukka 5:1) tells us about a ceremony held on Sukkot that “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never in his life seen true rejoicing.”
Something about this ancient Temple ritual made it the essence of happiness.
A golden flask was filled with water from the Silwan valley and brought to the water gate at the Temple (in the evening), where the shofar was sounded and a Kohen on duty poured this water and some wine into bowls that were offered on the altar as libations (on the following morning). This ceremony was accompanied by sounding the shofar (Sukka 4:9-10)
The RAMBAM (Mishneh Torah, Shofar 8:14) tells us that the greatest of Israel’s wise men would dance, clap their hands, sing and rejoice in the Temple while the entire people would come to see and hear. The Talmud (Sukka 53a) tells us that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel used to take eight burning torches in one hand and throw them into the air; as he threw one, he caught another, and not one torch touched another. What is the reason for this great celebration?
What can this strange if colorful ceremony teach us about joy? Here are four suggestions:
1) Water is the simplest of beverages. There is no recipe for it, but one finds it and uses it. Wine, on the other hand, is the most complicated of drinks, and great skill and experience are needed to make it. On Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the water libation ceremony held during the intermediate days of Sukkot, both wine and water were given as offerings simultaneously and the holes they were poured into were constructed in such a way that both liquids would reach the altar depth at exactly the same time. The ceremony is telling us that both are equally valuable even though we often value wine above water. In life, too, we tend to value the expensive, the unusual, the complicated. By making such a fuss of water, we learn to appreciate what is simple and everyday, and not take any of G-d’s wonderful gifts for granted.
2) The singing and antics of the Kohanim and Rabbis are very hierarchial. Only the important personages were involved, while most people were onlookers. However, at the same time, the hierarchy was being broken down. We see people behaving in ways that are unusual and even demeaning. So much so that the RAMBAM reminds us that “whoever holds himself proud, giving himself honor, and acts haughtily in such situations (of expressing love for G-d), is a sinner and a fool… In contrast, anyone who lowers himself and thinks lightly of his person in these situations is truly a great person, worthy of honor” (Mishneh Torah, Shofar 8:15).
The dual nature of the proceedings - hierarchical while breaking down the hierarchy - teach us to appreciate our place in the world, but also remind us that these hierarchies are flexible. There are times when Rabbis behave like entertainers on the Ed Sullivan Show. We are not bound to our positions in the world, but neither need we be unhappy or frustrated by them.
3) The Mishna in Sukka 5:2-3 tells us that lamps were set up so people could see the ceremony and “the wicks, used to kindle the lamps, were made of the Kohanim’s worn out garments.” They did this because priestly clothing was bought with public funds, and when one uses public funds, one needs to be especially careful not to be wasteful. In other words - integrity was maintained.
4) Finally we have Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel literally playing with fire. He is aware of how fragile life is. He knows that he can be burnt at any moment, and yet he is joyful. The Book of Kohelet expresses the same idea. While life is fragile, there can still be joy. We read Kohelet on the Shabbat of Sukkot when we rejoice even though we are in a rickety hut that can collapse at any moment. We celebrate and rejoice because our fragile little Sukkah, according to the Zohar is the Honeymoon Cabin of G-d and Israel.
Appreciating all the world offers - simple or complicated; being happy with one’s place in the world but knowing that this place is not set in stone; integrity; joy despite fragility - I would claim that these are the four basic elements of living a happy life.
Nowadays, much of the revelry and joy associated with Simchat Beit Hashoeva has been transferred to Simchat Torah. So as we dance, sing, and behave in different ways than usual, let’s remember that in this celebration lie the basics of how to live a fulfilled life.
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