The Festival of Sukkot was a magical time in the Holy Temple. The entire nation would make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and participate in the extraordinary ceremonies and rituals. The highlight of the holiday was the Simchas Beis HaShoeivah, the Celebration of the Water Drawing. All year long, only wine was poured upon the Altar in the Holy Temple. The festival of Sukkot was the exception, when water was offered as a libation.
Our Sages tell us that ‘He who never witnessed the joy of the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah never saw joy in his life.’ The greatest rabbis would entertain the people with juggling and dancing and other activities designed to please the crowd.
One year, however, something went horribly wrong. Unbeknownst to the rabbis, the High Priest was a covert member of the Sadducees, a group of radicals who denied the authority of the Oral tradition. The celebrations were at an all-time high. All of a sudden, the wicked High Priest took the flask of water and poured it upon his feet. After all, he declared, where in the Torah, do we find any reference to pouring water onto the Altar?
The people would have none of it. They began to pelt him with their etrogim and chased the trouble-maker out of town.
תַנְיָא, רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בֶּן בְּתִירָה אוֹמֵר: נֶאֱמַר בַּשֵּׁנִי ״וְנִסְכֵּיהֶם״. בַּשִּׁשִּׁי ״וּנְסָכֶיהָ״, בַּשְּׁבִיעִי ״כְּמִשְׁפָּטָם״, הֲרֵי מֵ״ם יוֹ״ד מֵ״ם — ״מַיִם״, מִכָּאן רֶמֶז לְנִיסּוּךְ מַיִם מִן הַתּוֹרָה.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira says: While on the rest of the days of Sukkot the Torah employs the phrase: “And its libation [veniska],” on the second day it is stated: “And their libations [veniskeihem]” with an extra letter mem; on the sixth day, it is stated: “And its libations [unsachehah]” with an extra letter yud. On the seventh day, instead of “according to the law [kamishpat]” employed on the other days, it is stated: “According to their laws [kemishpatam]” with an extra letter mem. Together these additional letters, mem, yud, and mem, form the word mayim, which means water. This is an allusion to the water libation from the Torah.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira demonstrates an allusion to the Simchas Beis HaShoeivah in three additional letters concealed deep within the text. The Torah speaks of the various libations on Sukkot. While seemingly superfluous, together the three letters spell out the word ‘mayim’ (water).
The water libation ceremony served to beseech Heaven for rain and blessings of parnasah (livelihood). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains (D”M) the significance of this ritual. Every single individual, even the most impoverished, has the wherewithal and opportunity to connect with our Father in Heaven. He may not have money to purchase animal sacrifices, but every person can access an abundance of water to present as an offering before God.
The key is intent. So long as one’s heart is directed towards Heaven, God will bless him. Rav Moshe concludes that this is the reason for the unparalleled joy of the ceremony of the water libation. It represents the fact that serving God does not cost a penny. Every outlay for Hashem, He will more than repay.
The Dubno Maggid tells a story of a fellow who was wandering through the desert, exhausted and thirsty. Utilizing the final bit of strength left in him, he starts to dig. Lo and behold, to his great surprise and joy, he finds water, and quenches his thirst. He continues on his way, but that’s not the end of the story. Every future wayfarer is then able to benefit from his efforts, long after his departure. That’s the beauty of water’s abundant character. Our ability to provide water in abundance demonstrates that Hashem can provide for all our needs in abundance. We simply must maintain our faith in His providence.
Returning to our Gemara, it goes without saying that even prior to Rabbi Yehuda’s discovery of the three extra letters, we have believed in the Oral Law’s insistence upon the water libation on Sukkot. The Oral Torah is an essential, non-negotiable part of our tradition. Anyone who suggests that they do Judaism independent of the Oral Law has not stopped to consider the bulk of their religious practice.
That’s why the people threw their etrogim at the High Priest. The Written Torah makes no mention of an etrog. All it says is that we must take a beautiful fruit on Sukkot. The Oral Torah clarifies the meaning of the verse, as referring to an etrog. If this Sadducee refused to believe in the authenticity and authority of the Oral Torah, then why did he do etrog, or for that matter, 95% of his Judaism?
Ultimately, so much of what we do comes down to faith. Either you are committed to believing the story of Judaism or you’re not. And if you’re not, then you need to start second guessing every aspect of your Judaism. You can’t have an etrog without a water libation. And if you accept the validity of the water libation, then you’re demonstrating your faith in Hashem that He can and will provide for you.
Because His storehouse is limitless. Just like the fellow in the wilderness who dug the well, when you are prepared to make the effort to dig a little into your faith reservoir, you will discover an abundance that will sustain you and all those who follow you – your children, your grandchildren, and generations to come.
All it takes is to tap into the faith you already have. If you’re already doing etrog, then you’re already a believer. You needn’t resist the yearnings of your soul to deepen your faith commitment. May you dig and delve into the deepest recesses of your soul and discover ever-flowing wellsprings of spiritual, physical and material blessing and prosperity!