Sukkot: The Land of Israel and Rain
Sukkot completes the cycle of the Yamim HaNoraim (High Holidays). The Yamim HaNoraim is a time of judgment. Israel’s economic prosperity and indeed, life itself, are dependent on the country’s rainfall. Israel’s lack of water resources and its limited rainfall are literally issues of life and death. It is no surprise that every year, much of the country’s news focuses on the level of water in the Kinneret Lake. It is also not surprising that part of the prayer for rain is found in the Shemonah Esrei’s blessing of “mechaye hametim” – “the sustainer of life” – for, without water, life cannot be sustained.
The beginning of Israel’s rainy season (the month of Tishrei) is a time of judgment. If the rain comes, Israel will have health and prosperity, if it does not, the people will suffer and face recession.
The water ritual ceremonies reach their crescendo throughout Sukkot, a “back to nature festival” (the sukkot booths and the arba minim-the four species), with the hoshana “rain ceremonies”, the Simchot Bet Hashoevot (the Rejoicing of the Water Drawing), Hoshanna Rabba (an additional day of judgment) and its extensive use of the “river willow”, and finally “tefillat geshem” (prayer for rain) said on Shemini Atzeret. On Shemini Atzeret we also begin the daily prayer for rain, saying in our prayers “mashiv haruach umorid hageshem” (“return the wind and the rain”).
It may be hard for students who live outside of Israel (and in the modern world where water streams from a faucet) to appreciate this goal of the Yamim HaNoraim. Therefore, it’s important for the teacher to create a biblical and geographical framework for the students to feel comfortable with. This lesson tries to do this but the teacher may prefer to expand on it.
All the sources have been written in English as most computers are not Hebrew enabled, however, all sources appear in Hebrew as an appendix at the end of this guide.
You may want to co-ordinate this lesson with the geography teacher in order to chart rainfall, investigate landscape, irrigation, etc.
The student will be able to:
1. Describe the reliance of the Land of Israel on rainfall as opposed to other countries.
2. Describe the connection between rainfall and the Yamim HaNoraim (High Holidays), specifically Sukkot.
3. Explain why God chose the Land of Israel to be the Promised Land
The student will:
1. Develop text analysis skills.
2. Develop map reading skills.
The student will appreciate:
1. The relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
2. The importance of water in sustaining civilization.
3. The reliance on God for surviving.
Resources & Equipment needed
- Tanach, printed source sheet of Hebrew texts (attached below) or Sefaria links (indicated throughout the lesson plan)
- Map of Israel (attached below or virtual maps such as Google Maps or Hatanakh)
You may want to examine the second paragraph of the Shema with students. God promises that as a reward for obeying His word, He will: “give the rain of your land in its season, the early and late rains…” At the same time for disobedience, He will: “stop the heavens and there will be no rain…” (Devarim 11:13-17). You may want to ask the students why rain is considered to be the ultimate reward; with its lack thereof is the ultimate punishment. Perhaps you should ask the student what they would like to have as rewards for obedience.
In an in-person class, hand out the worksheet (attached below) to work through together, citing from text wherever possible. In an online class, send students links to texts and maps as relevant.
a. Israel is: “a land of hills and valleys.” Have students explore the map of Israel (in an in-person class, distribute copies of the map to students; in an online class, share link to map of Israel to explore). Note how the coast (from modern-day Tel Aviv towards the south) is a flat area of land. Most of this area was not in Israel’s control during the Biblical period.
Biblical Israel is considered to be the mountainous central region of the country (i.e. Judea in the south, Samaria in the north and the Ever Hayarden – Trans Jordan – on the east bank of the river) and the deep valley along the River Jordan, in between the two mountainous regions. The River Jordan flows from four streams that commence on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the north close to the border with Lebanon. It flows in a southern direction for 45 kilometers to the northern shore of the Kinneret. Then from the southern shore of the Kinneret, it snakes its way south to the Dead Sea, a total distance of 250kms You could point out that there is such a huge drop between the mountains of the Judean Desert to the Jordan Valley (the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth), and that when it rains, dangerous flash floods develop, with the water rushing down the sides of the chalky mountains and collecting in the valleys (known as wadis). This explains how an oasis (such as Ein Gedi) can exist in the middle of the desert. The mountains are a desert as the water cannot settle there whilst the Jordan Valley is Israel’s most fertile region. However, this only occurs when rainfalls. If no rain falls, the area remains arid. For those students who have been to Israel, you can discuss the difficulties walking around Jerusalem (especially the Old City) as you are continuously going up and down mountains. Those students who have been to Jericho (an oasis town) can testify to the stunning views to the east of it – a huge mountain ridge begins immediately to the west of it, whilst it sits at much lower at the bottom of the valley.
b. “…the land, which you are going over to possess, is, and drinks water as the rain of heaven comes down.” In the summer, Israel is a very hot and dry country, but it has a rainy season that lasts from Tishrei to Nissan (Sukkot to Pesach). Egypt, on the other hand, “you watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs”. Egypt has a deluge of the Nile, but Israel is dependant on the rainfall. c. “…the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year unto the end of the year.” God decides whether to bring the rain or not. God looks at the behavior of the inhabitants of this land and decides whether they are worthy of receiving life. On a side point, you should show that this source teaches that the beginning of the rainy season (i.e. Tishrei) is “the beginning of the year”.
Egypt is irrigated very simply, “with your foot”. Although Egypt is a huge country with a large surface area, it is only inhabited along the banks of the River Nile, all the way from north to south. The rest of the country is an inhospitable desert, almost incapable of sustaining human life as Egypt receives virtually no rainfall. Egypt exists because of the Nile. Each year, the river overflows (called the deluge) and floods all the fields like “a garden of herbs”. The ancient Egyptians built a series of canals that allowed the water to flow directly to their farms, avoiding their homes. The Egyptians directed the canals by opening and closing the vents with their feet. With this in mind, it is understandable how the Nile was worshipped and considered a god. It also explains why Egypt was a very wealthy country and an ancient superpower.
We will examine this source in greater detail in question 5. For now, it is important to see that Egypt is so “well-watered” and fertile, that is compared to the “garden of the Lord”, i.e. the Garden of Eden, a very lush area that could sustain all vegetation.
This is a “do you think” question, therefore any answer the students bring is correct as long as they back it up. The students may have a strong bias towards Israel and may not be able to overcome their modern-day perceptions of Egypt being a poor, disease-ridden, third-world country for them to answer this question properly.
You may prefer to ask about a modern equivalent to Egypt such as the United States. You could also point out that as well as being a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Bamidbar 13:27), Israel is also known as a “land that devours its inhabitants” (ibid. 32). It is a challenging country to tame. It is therefore not surprising that despite being slaves, the Israelites often expressed the desire to return to lush Egypt. (You may want to discuss water-saving methods the government recommends in order to preserve the country’s water supply.) If this is the case, we must examine why God gave His chosen people such an inhospitable country.
a. “…the whole plain of the Jordan”. It should be noted that the Jordan valley was well watered by the Jordan “before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah”. After the destruction, the land became infertile and it appears that the flow of the Jordan must ha altered making the area wholly dependent on rainfall.
b. “The garden of the Lord”, i.e. the Garden of Eden.
c. “The land of Egypt.
Each of these areas was serviced by rivers that gave an “endless” supply of water.
A: The Garden of Eden (“The Garden of the Lord”) has four rivers: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. This area has not been adequately identified and so I have not brought maps. It may not be obvious to the students that the “Garden of the Lord” is “The Garden of Eden”. The Ramban accepts it as such (see the Ramban on Bereshit 13:10, k’gan hashem k’eretz mizrayim).
B: Sedom (The Jordan Valley): We cannot identify Sedom precisely as it was destroyed, but it was in the Jordan Valley, near the Dead Sea. Its source of water was the Jordan River. As we explained earlier, God destroyed the area and it is no longer fertile. The Jordan is certainly no longer a river in the same class as the Nile and the Euphrates. You could use a quote from Naaman (“Are not Amanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean?” 2 Kings 5:12) to show the Jordan is no longer a powerful river.
C: Egypt: As explained earlier, Egypt survives because of the Nile. You may want to discuss some Biblical incidents, such as Pharaoh’s dream or the plague of blood, to show how central the Nile is to Egypt.
a. In the Garden of Eden, man did not have to work. Food was provided in abundance. Eventually, Adam and Eve became morally corrupt. As a punishment, God said: “Through the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”, meaning that a person’s livelihood will not be guaranteed. In the future, God’s help would be necessary for survival. You may want to add that the Garden of Eden is an ideal for a humanity that has an enormous amount of self-discipline and is capable of being faithful to God despite the lack of a need to rely upon Him.
b. The fertility of Sedom and its lushness of water led to a high standard of living that for a society that became corrupt. When Sedom became a bastion of immorality, God destroyed it.
c. There are many Biblical examples that you may prefer to bring in order to illustrate Egypt’s immorality. In this example, the Egyptians are described as not hesitating to kill a man in order to take his wife to be a concubine for Pharaoh.
The land of Israel is a land where: “the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it”. God wants Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Shemot 19:6). He, therefore, chose a land where the people need to look for God for guidance. Water is not guaranteed in Israel, the people must constantly satisfy God, so that He provides them with their rainfall and hence, life.
You could also argue that the abundance or lack of rain (reward and punishment) is an educational tool being used by God regarding Israel. His use of disciplinary measures means that He cares about His people’s moral development.
The Yamim HaNoraim are a time of judgment when we pray and reflect, seeking to improve ourselves in order to guarantee our future. We can now understand the importance of rainfall in this context and why Sukkot has so many “water” traditions.