By Maggid Zelig Golden
11 Tishrei 5777 | October 13, 2016
Happy New Year! I hope that the last 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur were sweet and meaningful. The rabbis teach us that these are the days of teshuva, days of relational reconciliation, personal realignment, and spiritual return. We ask forgiveness of friends and family; we talk to God; we pray to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. These holy days have become the most important days of the Jewish year. Yet, this was not always the case. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was during Sukkot that we gathered for the biggest festival of the year.
Imagine: four huge golden candelabras lit by young men climbing huge ladders; enormous wicks, fashioned from the worn out pants of the priests and soaked in local olive oil, burned in the Temple courtyard all night. The flames were so high, the Mishnah teaches, “there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the light of the place of water drawing” (Mishneh Sukkot 5:3). Sages juggled fire, sang and danced, and musicians of all kinds played their trumpets, flutes, and more. Shofars were sounded to welcome the rising sun (Mishneh Sukkot 5:4-5). Sukkot was the original Burning Man. The Sages teach, “anyone who has never seen the rejoicing at the place of water drawing, has never seen joy in all one’s days” (Mishneh Sukkot 5:1).
So what was the hubbub all about? Sukkot was not a great festival of creativity or self-exploration. Sukkot was a prayer for the world. On Yom Kippur, we are taught that each of our individual lives are judged for the coming year and written in the Book of Life — a powerful personal moment. On Sukkot, we are taught, the life of the world is judged. Similar to how we are inscribed in the book of life, on Sukkot it is determined whether and how the world will receive rains for the year (Talmud Bavli, Rosh HaShanah 16a). In this spirit, Sukkot began each day with a magical, water honoring ritual.
Each day, 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, we are taught that the priests would bring seventy offerings to the Temple sacred fire. Why seventy offerings? As a prayer for the seventy nations of the world, Rabbi Eliezer explains (Talmud Bavli Sukkah 55b). Rashi, the medieval French commentator, further explains that these offerings bring forgiveness for the entire world (represented by the seventy nations) so that the rain will fall all over the earth.
It is time to renew Sukkot as a prayer for the entire world. The global social fabric is tearing, exemplified by violence in Syria and across the Middle East, the beginning of the collapse of the European Union with Brexit, and unprecedented rift and rancor in American politics. The ecological fabric of our world is rapidly deteriorating, evinced by the collapse of the Bay Area Delta Watershed, the elongated California drought, and our climate passing the 400 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a threshold that many scientists say is the point of no return for potentially catastrophic climate change. If ever there was a time to come together, to unify our prayer for the world, now is the time. If it’s true, or even possible, that collective action grows out of collective prayer, then we must insert some measure of sanity into our world by unifying our prayer.
Individual growth and refinement and relationship repair, the likes of which I love to teach about during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is essential. However, this must be in service to the even more critical work of collective growth and cultural repair. It is time for human evolutionary growth — to transcend our individuality for the collective good. As our great elder Rabbi Hillel expressed, “if not now, when?” (Pirkeh Avot 1:14)
In progressive Buddhist circles, they say that the next Buddha will be the Sangha (the Sanskrit word for community). So too in Jewish tradition, some of us say that the next Rebbe will be the Kehilla (a Hebrew word for community). Whichever metaphor you like, the evolution of human consciousness calls upon us to transcend individuality and lean into the needs of the collective, to orient our hearts once again to Rebbe Eliezer’s 70 nations.
Let us take inspiration from the story of Standing Rock, where right now over 280 indigenous tribes from all over the planet are gathering to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL), which threatens to contaminate the Missouri River, the major source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux. In the name of water, the first food for all of life, the tribal nations of the world have gathered in unprecedented numbers to stand by their Lakota and Dakota relatives.
For thousands of years, we too have gathered in the name of water by praying for the nations of the world. Let this Sukkot be a powerful reminder that we Jews understand the power of water and the importance of praying for water, and the power for entering into solidarity with all peoples of the world — for water knows no boundaries.
Further, let’s join our indigenous nations of the world by standing in solidarity with Standing Rock. Pray with your feet and join them shoulder-to-shoulder to take a stand for the waters of the world. Pray with your pocket book by supporting these protectors with financial support to obtain the water, food, and winter supplies needed to sustain their stand. You can donate at the Standing Rock official donation site.
As we come together for Sukkot on the Farm in just one week at Eatwell Farm, we will gather to celebrate the ingathering of the harvest and our community. We will also enact our version of the ancient water ritual with shofars, water pouring, and pouring out our hearts together with our prayers for the world. I pray that we will unify, remembering our relationship to the waters and our power to pray for and stand with all peoples of the world for the healing needed today.