Simchat Beit HaSho’eva

“And you shall draw water in happiness out of the wells of salvation”(Isaiah 12:3)

The celebration of the drawing of the water for the Temple altar is called in the Talmud(Sukkah 50b) both “Simchat Beit HaChashuva” (“the rejoicing of the house of the important one”), since it is an important mitzvah, and “Simchat Beit HaSho’eva” (“the rejoicing of the house of water-drawing”) because of the water that was drawn to be poured on the altar, as it says: “And you shall draw water in happiness out of the wells of salvation.” The Jerusalem Talmud says that Divine inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh) was drawn from there, as happened in the case of the prophet Jonah, who received Divine inspiration during Simchat Beit HaSho’eva.

In order to draw water from the wells of salvation, one needs a vessel. And “happiness” is the vessel used to draw this water. When the vessel can be filled with water, then the wells become “the wells of salvation.”

There are three Jewish pilgrimage festivals. One is “the time of our freedom”; one is “the time of the giving of our Torah”; and one is “the time of our joy.” There are three revelations:firstly, there is the Festival of Freedom, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which is a revelation of redemption; secondly, there is the revelation of Torah, the giving and the receiving of the Torah; and finally there is the revelation of joy, in which joy is received.

On each of these three festivals, our task is to awaken the special essence and content of that festival. In the month of Nisan, we celebrate the Festival of Freedom: “In Nisan, they [the people of Israel] were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a).The wider meaning of redemption stems from the first redemption. In Sivan, the Torah was given, and the full context of the giving and the receiving of the Torah stems from the first Giving of the Torah. In each and every generation, and on every day, all of us, according to our worth and our nature, “draw water” from the day of the Giving of the Torah. Lastly, there is “the time of our joy” from which we draw our joy. And like the doctrine of redemption and the doctrine of Torah, the doctrine of joy, too, is a great doctrine.

There are different levels and aspects of joy. There is the simple joy of the Feast of the Harvest – when the granaries are full with wheat and the wine presses overflow with new wine, and there is peace and tranquility in our borders, “no breach – and no load cry” (Psalms 144:14), then a good feeling prevails and there is joy. Yet, this is a simple joy, a joy dependent on something external. Just as “love that depends on some [transitory] thing, if the [transitory] thing passes away, the love passes away too” (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:16), so too can a joy that depends on some external thing last only as long as the thing lasts. A person can feel joy because he has a bottle of whisky, or because he is being tickled.

But, this is an accidental joy, a joy unconnected to the essence of joy. When one feels true, genuine joy, one rejoices in the very joy itself, which imbibes its character from the essence of joy itself. When we rejoice in this way, the joy belongs to us and cannot be taken away from us at any time or anywhere. In good and bad times, in times of ascent and times of descent, it is still “the time of our joy.”

In order to obtain this joy, the first task is “and you shall draw water.” One draws water from below. One descends step-by-step until one reaches the spring at the bottom of the Temple Mount. At the top of the Temple Mount, there is plenty of water. There are springs that are higher than the Temple (e.g. Eyn Ettam) and provide for all the Temple’s needs. But in order to reach “the wells of salvation”, the well of joy, and one must go all the way down, to that very stream that springs from below.

There are meditations (kavanot) to be done before immersing oneself in the mikveh. There are the kavanot of the ARI (Rabbi Isaac Luria); but there are also the kavanot of the Ba’al Shem Tov, which anyone can understand and apply. The principle is that one goes down, then further down, and yet further down, and when one is at the very bottom, one bends down once more and this is the mikveh that purifies.

There is a story about one of the Rebbes of Slonim who came to visit the Land of Israel. As he was about to leave and was surrounded by a great multitude of his disciples who came to bid him farewell, he was seen bending down. Then he explained: “O Lord, the hope (mikveh) of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13), the People of Israel is God’s mikveh” (see Yoma 85b). This is the purifying spring from which water is drawn in happiness.

The essential joy is that joy that we feel with the rising waters. On the second day of Creation, God cut the world in two, separating the waters above the heavens from the waters beneath the heavens, separating the celestial from the earthly, the higher water from the lower. Since then, the lower waters cry: “We too want to stand before the King!” (Tikkunei Zohar 19:5).This, in the widest sense, is the essence of the world’s weeping. The world weeps because it belongs to the lower waters. The lower waters do not wish to remain below. They wish to ascend, but cannot, and therefore they weep. They weep because they suffer the pain of separation, of being apart. And this weeping, this agony, fills the whole space of the world.

The lower waters are not the “many waters, the mighty waves of the sea” (Psalms 93:4), nor are they the strongly flowing waters of rivers. They are waters that emerge, drop by drop, from within the earth. Each drop has to fight its way through clods of earth, through crevices in the rock, in order to be purified, to break through and to become water. And when these drops succeed in climbing upwards, in cutting through all the shells of earth, and in breaking out, this is the “well of salvation,” the spring that symbolizes all of the lower waters in their distress and in their salvation. It is these lower waters that have succeeded in rising “to stand before the King,” which are drawn and brought higher and higher, step-by-step, through the Temple. On each and every step, a song is sung and trumpets are blown, and this is Simchat Beit HaSho’eva.

Simchat Beit HaSho’eva is a celebration of both fire and water, a celebration of torches shining afar and of ascending waters. Between the torches and the water, people dance. What is dance? In dance, people join one another. No one is left alone. There is music, overt or hidden, which envelops everyone, unifying them all. When we dance, we stamp our feet on the earth in order to ascend to heaven. Again and again, the dancer kicks the floor of the world, because he does not want to remain there. He wants to rise an inch, half an inch, whatever. It is as if the dancer were saying: “I refuse to remain with the lower waters that do not want to rise; I still want to rise!”

“And you shall draw water in happiness [sasson].” There is a difference between sasson(happiness) and simcha (joy). Simcha can be felt quietly and calmly, whereas sasson bursts forth, storms out, rises up from the depths of the earth. Sasson is the tool with which the lowly man refines himself until he rises upward. There are outer shells that obstruct, iron rings that surround and strangle the very joy of the soul itself. But happiness extricates itself by kicking, by striving to find the primary source, the principal basis of the entire lower existence, of “we want to stand before the King.”

When this idea is somehow preserved, when it is awakened even if ever so slightly, there is nothing that can prevent the joy. From among the waves that want to break and to drown, from beneath the lower waters that no longer wish to ascend, a single voice is heard, the voice of the waters themselves, the voice of their inner essence which is beyond any descent  the voice of the yearning of the lower waters to rise.

The prayer of Modim d’Rabanan (recited in the Reader’s Shemoneh Esreh) is the very essence of the essence: “We thank You for allowing us to thank You.” This is a thanksgiving benediction containing no praise or thanks for the goodness of this world, but only the primal praise that permeates all of reality – the praise of “we thank You for the fact that we thank You.” This is like the revelation of joy in “the time of our joy.”

Within everything, within all of reality, be it what it may, both high and low, good and bad, there is this joy – the joy in the ability to ascend. For this, people join hands and stamp the earth to order to ascend. Ascending is difficult; it is hard to climb, it is impossible to reach the heavens; one rises and keeps falling, sliding back. But this dance, the very dance, cannot be taken away from us. And from this dance, we draw Divine inspiration, as it says: “And you shall draw water in happiness out of the wells of salvation.”