Sukkot, the full moon harvest festival of the autumn, is also the festival of rain. This rain ritual was created for teens in a Jewish educational setting.
“Four times a year the world is judged. At Passover a decision is made about produce. At Shavuot a decision is made about fruit. At Rosh Ha-Shanah all creatures are judged. God, who fashioned them, considers all their actions. At Sukkot, a decision is made about rain.” (Rosh Ha-Shanah 16a)
This year Sukkot falls near the beginning of school. As the first activity of the year, I wanted to create a ritual that involved the new students in something sacred, interactive and fresh, something related to Sukkot that went far beyond the traditional rituals that have lost much of their wonder and excitement. I wanted to create a rain ritual, so that we could revise an ancient ritual but still claim it for our own.
Although nowadays we often view rain as an interruption or an inconvenience, those that live off the earth embrace rain as life. Rain nurtures and sustains us. In Israel, where rain is unpredictable and only comes during the winter season, Sukkot became one of the most important holidays of the year, because that is where the Jewish people asked for rain to fall. For our students starting a new year, this new beginning seems as unpredictable as the rain, and there is an unconscious collective desire to be blessed with the same security that rain brings.
In its primal form, Sukkot was done with great joy and impressive pageantry. "In Temple times, the week-long celebration of Sukkot was one of the year's two major pilgrimage events (the other being Passover). Jews came from all over the world to bring their tithes to the Temple, and to join in the celebrations. There were many special events. Every morning, after the burning of the regular sacrifices, there was a water-pouring ceremony. An imposing procession brought water carried in golden vessels up to the Temple Mount where it was poured, along with wine, on the altar! Silver horns were blown, and flutes were played. The day was filled with the impressive presentation of the gift-offerings brought by pilgrims. After dark came the fire ceremonies. Torches were juggled, giant menorot were set ablaze, and even the priests' old garments were burned in bonfires. Sukkot scored a ten in spectacle."
Special gift-offerings, water-pouring rituals, and probably even the waving of the etrog and the lulav were originally cause-and-effect rituals to insure the coming of the winter rains. In our day and age, the rain-making aspect of Sukkot rituals has been reduced. It consists only of the addition of one simple phrase to the regular daily service. Starting on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of this week-long celebration, the words "Who brings the wind and causes the rain to fall," are added to the second blessing of the Amidah, the long, standing, silent prayer, and we recite a poem asking God for rain.
This year as the first school wide activity, we will be performing a rain ritual. The room will be set up with a giant “string-spiral” that encompasses the entire room, where the students will stand during the ritual. The spiral of students will be surrounded by a circle of drummers who will lead the energy and rhythm of the ritual.
As the students walk to their space on the spiral, we hear the soft sounds of a rain stick. Once in place, each student will be handed a simple handmade or earthmade instrument that will be their prop during the ritual. Students will receive either "sand-shakers" or palm-branches from the lulav and many more subtle instruments for the blessing of rain.
As the rainstick stops and the light trickle of drumming begins, we begin our rain ritual, that works like dominos falling. At the beginning of the spiral, only the subtle-sounding instruments that remind us of wind begin. As the sound makes it way around the spiral, we then go back to the beginning and once again like dominos, in addition to the wind sounds, we hear the light trickle of rain through "snapping-instruments." Then the palm-branches are waved and struck on the ground and then finally the "sand-shakers." By this time the music should sound like a heavy rain storm and the drummers should create an atmosphere for the ritual participants to dance and move.
Eventually, just as rain ceases and the sun comes out, we begin the end of our ritual. We do it like we began it but in reverse. As each instrument quiets its voice, we are left with the final sounds of the wind. At the end of the ritual, I have asked all the teachers to be holding vessels of water. As the rain stops, the water is poured, leaving us with the overflowing sounds of water.
For these students, the Sukkot rain ritual relates us to Mother Earth. It forces us to reconnect with the ecosystems, to reaffirm our awareness that despite our normal existence in carefully controlled environments, we are all passengers on “spaceship Earth.” We begin the new year and the new school year realizing that the rhythms and patterns of the natural order affect our lives and are also symbolic of the nurturing and support that we need as students and educators. We hope that blessing the coming of the rains will also bless us with the growth and sustenance needed for wisdom, openness and understanding.
David Schildkret is a director, artist, and Jewish educator.
more water wisdom