Repeated news reports about conflicts between Egypt and Ethiopia over who gets how much of the Nile River water, or between Turkey and Syria, over who gets how much water from the Tigris or the Euphrates remind us how the centrality of water to life in the Middle East. If there is no water, there is no life. No day in the Jewish calendar emphasizes that reality like the day of Hoshana Rabba—the last day we sit in the Sukkah. The two central themes of Hoshana Rabbah are the sealing of our verdict for the years, which was given to us on Yom Kippur, and it is the day God determines how much water the world will have; those two are so strongly connected.
In the times of the Beit Hamikdash, it was customary to bring large branches of willow trees from the town of Motza, neighboring Jerusalem, and place them near the Alter inside the Temple while the Israelites would walk around the Alter once on every day of Sukkot. The Kohanim would then bring water from the Gihon spring and pour it on the Alter as all would pray for a year blessed with plenty of rain. On the seventh day of Sukkot—also known as Hoshana Rabbah—everyone would walk around the Alter seven times. (Mishna Sukkah 4:5)
Even nowadays, we replicate much of this process. We walk around the Bimah in synagogue with our Aravot once every day of Sukkot and seven times on Hoshana Rabbah. On Hoshana Rabbah, we take the Aravot and slam them on the floor seven times. While this custom is referred to as a Minhag Ne’viim—a tradition we have from the days of the prophets, one of the reasons given for this comes from the Nile river as well. As documented by historians, ancient Egyptians used to worship the branches of the willow tree as it represented to them the blessing of water. On Hoshana Rabbah, we make it clear that although we pray for rain and yearn for life, it gives; at the end of the day, it is all from God. We slam the Aravah to the floor to show that with all the prayer and hope we invoked so that it rain, our thoughts are directed only towards God.
Hoshana Rabbah represents the centerpiece of our prayer for rain on Sukkot. Walking around the Alter—and later the Bimah in synagogue— seven times represents the seven times the Israelites walked around the city of Jericho in the days of Joshua before miraculously conquering it(Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 703). Treating the need for rain like the miraculous conquest of Jericho underscores the centrality of rain and water to this day. Praying for rain isn’t just like praying for anything. Praying for rain is praying for a miracle. Praying for rain is praying for life itself. It is on this day of Hoshana Rabbah that we also say the extended Hoshanot in which we not only ask for rain but that the rain be well placed. “Hoshana Adama Me’erer, please save the land from being cursed,” we ask God that the rain come down, but that the land also be fruitful, something that might make the difference between life and death.
This profound consciousness of how critical water is to the world’s survival has traveled with the Jewish people even as we lived in regions that did not face water shortages. The prayers for rain, dew, produce, and thriving agriculture remained part of who we are, no matter where we were. When so many Jews returned to Israel and the Middle East, it is no surprise we immediately understood how profoundly important water is.
Today, as the world faces water shortages like never before, Israel is at the very forefront of saving this through water innovation. From the Netafim droplet systems that protect water in irrigation, spearheading the world in water desalination and recycling water, or WaterGen decides that literally produce drinking water from the air by extracting the humidity, Israel is leading the world in water innovation. Thanks to Israel and Jewish communities around the world, millions of people in Africa have drinking water and advanced equipment to extract it from the ground. Water conciseness is so much a part of who we are that we mention it in two separate blessings, three times a day, in the Amidah prayer.
Of course, we still remember that it is God who delivers water to this world, just like our focus on medicine and the value of saving lives does not let us forget that God is the one who gives life to the world. Just as we use the Aravah to remind us to pray for water, and then slam it to the floor, renouncing ancient Egyptian worship of the Nile willow. We always remember that everything ultimately comes from God, and that we are not exempt from trying to make things better.
As climate change inflicts upon this world increasingly devastating water shortages, as countries feud over water resources and large communities find themselves migrating due to water shortages, the message of Hoshana Rabbah could not be more relevant. As we conclude our prayer for water, we also seal the fate of this world. There can be no life without water, and for that, we say to God: “Hosha Na” please do save us. May we all be blessed with a “Pitka Tava—A Gut Kvittel—a note is inscribing us for a good life.”