During the Festival of Sukkot, a special ceremony took place every day in the Holy Temple, known as the Festival of the Water Libation.
Each morning of the festival, during the daily sacrifice, water was poured onto the altar in a special joyous service.
At the foothills of Mount Moriah, down below in the City of David, flows a natural spring called Shiloach. This spring is ancient, and as it is located literally in the shadow of the Holy Temple, it has always had spiritual significance for Israel. It is the original source of Jerusalem's water.
Every day of the festival, the priests descended down to the Shiloach, accompanied by all the congregation assembled in the Temple. There, they filled a golden flask with 3 lug (about 1/2 liter) of the pure water. Ascending back up, carrying the flask with song and elation with that singular feeling that comes only from fulfilling the Holy One's will, the gathering entered back into the Temple through the Water Gate, one of the gates on the southern side of the court (it received its name on account of this event-Mishna Shekalim 6, 3). As they entered the gate, their steps were greeted by the sound of trumpets and shofar-blasts, in fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah's words (12:3) "With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation."
Once in the Temple, the priest who had the honor of performing this service now carries the golden flask up the altar ramp. At the top, he turns to his left. Since the ramp is located at the south side of the altar, this means that the cohen now faces the southwest corner; it is here that the libations were poured. Here at this corner, two silver cups were fixed on the top of the altar, sitting next to each other. The one further east received the wine libations which are poured out every day at the time of the daily tamid sacrifice; the other was designated for this service, which took place on exculsively on Sukkot.
"With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3).
Based on this verse, the drawing of water from the Shiloach spring and its libation upon the altar of G-d was accompanied by great rejoicing and celebration in the Holy Temple. In fact, this joy was so immense, and the celebrations so uplifting, that the sages of Israel emphatically stated: "Whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation-has never experienced true joy in his life" (ibid. 5, 1).
But what was the cause of such great happiness, to the extent that this statement was recorded for all posterity? Indeed, what could be so moving about the simple act of gathering up some water, and pouring it onto the altar? True, there is always a feeling of joy when an individual has the opportunity to fulfill the will of G-d. And true, too, that this observance has always been associated as an propitious harbinger for the coming season's rainfall. But there is still more significance to this great rejoicing
"Closeness to G-d is Good"
The answer can be found in the words of King David, expressing one of the purest of human emotions: "But as for me-only closeness to G-d is good" (Psalms 73:28). Man, being a most limited and finite creature relates to everything by comparison. When we consider something to be "good" or "bad" it is solely on the basis of experience; if something is thought to be good, it can only be in relation to something else which we have previously encountered and know to be good. But David said that all pursuits, endeavors and aspirations are but folly for him, for the only thing in which he had any interest, that which uplifted him and motivated him, was the ultimate goodness to which nothing can be compared only closeness to G-d.
This is the true aspiration of the Jew who wishes to live his life in connection to G-d, guided by His commandments and determined to sanctify himself through them. And it is in the Holy Temple that this pursuit reaches its resounding crescendo, for there, unlike any other spot on earth, G-d beckons to man to come forward and recognize that the universe has direction, life has meaning and ultimately, that not only does man seek to know his Creator, but the Creator seeks man as well
Thus at the celebrations in the Temple, the famed sage Hillel enigmatically recited: "My feet lead me to a place that I love to go. And the Holy One, blessed be He, says 'If you come to My house, I will come to your house. And if you do not come to My house, I will not come to yours'-for the verse states (Ex. 20:21) 'In all places where I will cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you'."
The Epitome of True Happiness is Spiritual Fulfillment
This realization of connection to G-d, and a life led for Divine purpose, is the true secret to happiness. This is King David's message in these words. Sukkot, itself "the time of our joy," is the season for great rejoicing-and its climax is at the water libation. This is the holiday of true faith in "the shadow of the Divine Presence." When the heart is freed and opened to this experience, the true happiness of spiritual fulfillment actually leads to prophetic enlightenment. The sages teach that prophecy itself can only come about through joy. A prophet can never receive enlightenment unless he is in a state of joy, for the Divine presence itself only rests on one who is joyful. Thus with regard to the prophet Elisha, the verse states (II Kings 3:15) "And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the L-rd came upon him."
Drawing Down the Spirit of Prophecy
Herein lies the true secret of the "festival of the water libation," states the Jerusalem Talmud: the great joy was in the receiving of prophetic inspiration. For the Hebrew word for the "drawing" of the water, sho'eva, also indicates drawing in a different direction-the drawing down of prophetic enlightenment. Thus "whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation, has never experienced true joy in his life"-for it was here that prophets like Jonah the son of Amitai received their prophecy. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that Jonah was not expecting any revelation, but merely arrived at the festival of the water libation along with all the other holiday pilgrims. He was so overcome with joy that he received Divine inspiration and in turn, there can be no greater joy than this.
Thus, on the holiday which is predisposed to joy, we find the epitome of true celebration taking place in the hallowed courtyards of the L-rd. There, His people experienced such spiritual happiness that it resulted in no less than the highest brush with the Divine possible for a human being to attain: the prophetic experience. All this came about by the fulfillment of the will of G-d in His presence.
Shana Tova, Chag Sameach A Good Year and Happy Sukkot to All
With best wishes for all blessings,
Rabbi Chaim Richman