Text Study and Thought-Starters



(assembled by Rabbi Fred, with thanks to Jonathan Neril’s “True Joy Through Water: Study and Discussion Guide” via the Orthodox Jewish Environmental group Canfei Nesharim)

Grab a friend or neighbor, a parent or child or sibling, a co-congregant or one of your fellow ‘Village people’ – or just gather your own thoughts!  Then take 20 or 30 minutes to learn about and reflect on Sukkot, water, our Jewish & natural heritage, and life on Earth.  Read these texts; reflect on or discuss the questions; post your deep thoughts on the blog below.  (Keep going below, or click here for the same text with clearer formatting: H2C2 Sukkot Text Study (Adat Shalom 2009)).  Chag sameach!



  1. I.   Sukkot, Rain, and Repentance – from Talmud, Tractate Rosh HaShana, 16a

It is taught in a Braita [old saying]: “All [things] are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and their verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur” — so said Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yehudah said: Everything is judged on Rosh Hashanah, but verdicts are [actually] sealed for each in its own time:  on Pesach for the grains, on Shavuot for the fruits of the tree, on Sukkot for water — and people are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and their verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yossi says:  Humanity is judged daily, as is written, “You inspect [people] each morning (Job 7:18).   Rabbi Natan says:  Humanity is judged every hour, as is written, “Examine [a person] every minute (ibid.).

a.  What’s the connection between Tshuvah (and the Ten Days of Repentance) and water?  How is water truly a Tishrei theme?

b.  How can we do better with our water use?  List some ways that we can “do tshuvah” when it comes to water?  (e.g. fewer bottles, shorter showers, more advocacy, etc)

c.  Reflect more on how we’re like the rain, and dependent on it – then consider this midrash (Ber. Rabbah 13:3):  “R. Simeon b. Yohai said: ‘Three things are equal in importance – Earth (EReTz), Human (ADaM), and Rain/Dew (MaTaR).’  Rabbi Levi ben Hiyyatha said:  ‘And these three each consist of three letters, to teach that without earth there would be no rain, and without rain earth could not endure; while without either people could not exist.’”  (I love that one – ed.).  Any new thoughts?



  1. II.   The Water Party of the Year – from Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, 51a-51b and 53a

Mishnah:  Whoever has not seen the rejoicing (Simchat) at the place (Beit) of the water-drawing (Ha-Sho’e’vah) has never seen rejoicing in their life!  At the conclusion of the first festival day of Sukkot, they descended to the court of the women (Ezrat Nashim) where they had made a great enactment:  there were there golden candlesticks with four golden bowls on top of each, and four ladders to each, and four youths of priestly stock whose hands held jars of oil containing one hundred and twenty log [a large amount] which they poured into the bowls. From the worn-out underwear and girdles of the priests they made wicks, and with them they kindled the lamps — and there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illumined by the light of the place of the water-drawing (Beit Ha-Sho’e’vah).  Men of piety and good deeds used to dance before them with lighted torches in their hands, and sing songs and praises.  And Levites without number with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets and other musical instruments were there, upon the fifteen steps leading down from the court of the Israelites to the court of the women, corresponding to the fifteen songs of ascents in the psalms…

It was taught: They said of Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel that when he rejoiced at the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing (Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’evah), he used to take eight lighted torches [and throw them in the air], and catch one and throw one and they did not touch one another.  And when he prostrated himself [bent down low], he used to dig his two thumbs in the ground, bend down, kiss the ground, and draw himself up again, a feat which no other man could do — and this is what is meant by Kidah [bowing to the ground].  (last part from Talmud Sukkot 53a; for Hebrew see p. 1 of http://canfeinesharim.org/uploads/17390waterdiscussion.pdf)

  1. What’s the most fun, raucous, wild thing you’ve ever been to?  Now, what were the deep values expressed through that activity or gathering?  What are the deep values that we can take from this, the story of our ancestor’s “biggest party of the year?”
  2. Joy, music, dance, juggling, ‘rabbis gone wild’ – and water.  What’s the connection?  Is this all about rain, and how we need the rain for our food and water; or is there something more global, more ecological, more symbolic in this water-joy connection?
  3. What an interesting detail, that the priests’ underwear became wicks for the lamps used in a holy ceremony!  What are some examples of “extreme reuse/recycling” in your life?  And speaking of greening our bottoms – did you know that 1 in 20 trees cut down in the U.S. becomes either toilet paper or facial tissue?  Think of all the trees, water, and habitat we’d save if we only used recycled on our noses and our…



  1. III.   Water Today – from Pesikta Rabbati 28, and ‘The American Prospect’ June 2008

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept…‟ (Psalm 137:1). Why did the Jewish people cry by the rivers of Babylon?  Rabbi Yochanan said, “The Euphrates River killed more of them than the wicked [King] Nebuchadnetzer did.  When the Jews lived in the land of Israel [before the exile], they drank only rainwater, freshwater and springwater.  When they were exiled to Babylon, they drank the [polluted] water of the Euphrates, and many of them died.”  (translation by Akiva Wolff; also in Midrash Shocher Tov 137; found in Jonathan Neril, op. cit.)

Three scenarios collude toward disaster.  Scenario one:  The world is running out of freshwater.  It is not just a question of finding the money to hook up the 2 billion people living in water-stressed regions of our world.  Humanity is polluting, diverting, and depleting the Earth’s finite water resources at a dangerous and steadily increasing rate.  The abuse and displacement of water is the ground-level equivalent of greenhouse-gas emissions and likely as great a cause of climate change.

Scenario two:  Every day more and more people are living without access to clean water. As the ecological crisis deepens, so too does the human crisis. More children are killed by dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and traffic accidents combined. The global water crisis has become a powerful symbol of the growing inequality in our world. While the wealthy enjoy boutique water at any time, millions of poor people have access only to contaminated water from local rivers and wells.

Scenario three:  A powerful corporate water cartel has emerged to seize control of every aspect of water for its own profit.  Corporations deliver drinking water and take away wastewater; corporations put massive amounts of water in plastic bottles and sell it to us at exorbitant prices; corporations are building sophisticated new technologies to recycle our dirty water and sell it back to us; corporations extract and move water by huge pipelines from watersheds and aquifers to sell to big cities and industries; corporations buy, store, and trade water on the open market, like running shoes.  Most important, corporations want governments to deregulate the water sector and allow the market to set water policy.  Every day, they get closer to that goal.  Scenario three deepens the crises now unfolding in scenarios one and two…

This, then, is the task:  nothing less than reclaiming water as a commons for the Earth and all people that must be wisely and sustainably managed if we are to survive… (Maude Barlow, A2-3)

  1. What’s the nastiest water you’ve ever swallowed, swam in, seen, or smelled?  How might that compare to the polluted water faced by the one-third of people on Earth who live in water-stressed regions (some quite near us)?  What can we do to help?
  2. Ancient Babylon collapsed when its water became polluted (mostly from salt build-up, archaeology tells us) and unavailable.  Did the Israelites suffer from the pollution of the Babylonian water, or the fact that it was wasn’t the water of their Holy Land?  What other cultures have lost access to the pure waters of their ancestral homelands?
  3. Reflect on the social and economic issues of access to clean water.  How conscious are we of the privilege, the miracle, of having clean water available on demand?  What can we do to extend that (as a basic human right) to all people, everywhere?
  4. If people don’t have clean water, neither do all the millions of species of animals and plants which depend on it.  How should we balance the needs of growing human populations with the ecosystem’s time-tested needs (i.e. diverting rivers for cities, industry, and agriculture, leaving the fish high and dry and the bays out of balance)?



  1. IV.   Water in our Siddur – every week at shul, every day in our homes
  1. In your Reconstructionist Siddur Kol Haneshama: Shabbat veChagim, read the 2nd paragraph of the Shma (Deuteronomy 11, on pages 282-83), with commentary.           *   What are the “early rain and later rain” – what difference does ‘when’ make?    *   How might we today “be forced to leave the good land that [God] gives you”?   *   When do we show “pride, self-satisfaction, and ingratitude” (Art Green, 282)?   *   Do you agree with David A. Tetusch’s logic (283) for this being in our liturgy?
  2. Look at Psalm 114, “B’tzeit Yisrael,” from our festival Hallel service (pp. 360-61).                     *   What are the multiple mentions of water in this Psalm?  Why?                               *   Is the greater miracle the natural order itself, or times when it’s suspended?     *   Why do all these water moments from Torah deserve special mention here?
  3. Read Tefillat Geshem, our annual Prayer for Rain, on pages 330-31.                             *   Note the context on page 329 – why the different rain language, by season?       *   This is read once a year, at the end of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret – why?            *   What blessings do you find in the rain?  Write your own, and post it below!





4 Responses to “Text Study and Thought-Starters”

  1. Alissa Stern October 6, 2009 at 10:10 pm #

    We’ve been thinking about how to incorporate water more into Shabbat, especially as a way o celebrate water as a life source rather than as a purifier (already incorporated a bit in the washing of hands). So, we’re wondering if it would be appropriate to say kiddush over water instead of, or perhaps, in addition to wine. Thoughts?

  2. Stephanie Firestone October 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    The festival discussion reminds me to ponder this holiday as one of the three pilgrimage festivals. The Hebrew “shalosh regalim” (3 legs) reminds me that our ancestors trekked by foot to bring their offerings to Jerusalem (not your average afternoon hike). Makes me appreciate what Mother Nature grants us all year round, but especially during this awesome weather when I feel an urgency to soak it up before the harsh winter hits. See you on the trails!

  3. Tova Starik October 17, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    I just found this and didnt have time to answer this time but enjoyed reading and thinking.. Would love to keep getting new posts! Thanks!


  1. Welcome, Adat Shalom! « H2C2 - February 18, 2010

    […] your thinking about the environmental ramifications of […]

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