Guest Opinion

Come and honor water and the health of the desert at the Sukkot celebration

Like many people, I moved to the desert seeking healing. I needed clear, dry air for my lungs and sinuses that had suffered in the pollution and damp of the East Coast.

After a time, I woke up to the larger issue of the health of the desert. There could, after all, be too much dryness, too many clear sunny days that were beautiful for hiking or having a meal outside. Without enough rain, even desert vegetation shrivels. And as a member of a water-well co-op at that time, I was very aware that the water table was dropping, since we needed to budget to drill even deeper.

I attended prayers for rain led by Tohono O'odham spiritual leaders before the summer rains. And I also turned to my own Jewish desert traditions to learn more about our relationship with water. Israel does not have a summer rainy season, so in the summer, Jews pray for dew, and in the fall begin praying for the rains that start at the same time as the gentle winter rains start in the Sonoran Desert.

In the ancient days, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the people brought offerings of grain, oil, wine and animals, giving thanks as part of the cycle of receiving rain, wind, sun and the nutrients of the earth. During the seven-day fall-harvest festival, called Sukkot, an even more precious offering was brought—water itself. For that one week during the year, at dawn, the Cohanim, priests, walked down to the base of Jerusalem to the pool of Shiloakh, which held water channeled from a nearby spring. The priests scooped up that spring water in a golden pitcher and carried it up to the Temple above, to pour it so that it trickled back down to the earth, in an eternal cycle.

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. (common era, equivalent to the Christian-oriented A.D.), these sacrificial rituals were no longer conducted. Instead, we see our tables of food as offerings, and give thanks as we take in the nourishment to continue living. Our prayers, too, are offerings.

Sukkot festivities today retain the element of harvest celebration; we build temporary structures called sukkot, adorn them with fruits and vegetables, and spend time in them. We also wave a palm frond, a willow branch and other symbolic plants to the east, west, north, south, above and below. The connection to water has not been entirely lost; people still gather to celebrate in the evenings of Sukkot, and continue to call it a Simchat Beit HaShoevah, the joy of the house of water drawing, even without the actual drawing of water.

In recent years, some people in Israel and the United States have again been focusing on water as part of their celebration of Sukkot. This year, the Southern Arizona Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life will hold our Second Annual Sukkot Water Drawing Celebration. We will sing songs that represent spiritual ascent to Jerusalem, and we will make a procession like the ancient priests did, drawing water and carrying it in reverence.

Our celebration continues with snacks and includes an opportunity to pick up educational materials on water conservation and ask questions of Ilene Grossman from Tucson Water.

We welcome people of all faiths to join us in this free community celebration of the sacredness of water. It takes place from 7 to 9 p.m., Monday, Oct. 5, outside of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, 3800 E. River Road (299-3000). Enter the building, and follow the signs. Please bring a flashlight, your own reusable pitcher or bowl for the water procession, a vegetarian snack to share, and your own reusable place-setting and utensils.

For more information, contact me at, or call 881-2534.

To learn about additional Jewish environmental programs, visit The Southern Arizona Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is collaborating with the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Arts Alliance to create this event. Funding also comes from the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.

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