The seventh day of the festival of Sukkot is also known as Hoshanah Rabbah, "the great supplication" or "the great 'save us'!" (That'd be today, in case you weren't keeping track.) Today is the day when, according to Jewish tradition, our relationship with water in the coming year is sealed.
What activities mark Hoshanah Rabbah? Going in circles, for one. Whereas during Sukkot it's customary to carry one's lulav and etrog around the synagogue sanctuary once during morning prayers each day, on Hoshanah Rabbah seven hakafot (circuits) are made. Another involves greenery: after the reading of a set of piyyutim (liturgical poems), willow branches are beaten against the ground until their leaves come off. I like to read this as a kind of embodied prayer for rain -- the leaves fall like raindrops, symbolizing the sustenance we hope for in the year to come. (Rabbi Bradley Artson Shavit offers a broad range of other interpretive possibilities.)
Some see Hoshanah Rabbah as the culmination of the holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah, and regard today as the day when judgement is finally passed on who we are and who we aim to be. I just learned this fall that it's considered a mitzvah to eat one's challah with honey all through the holiday season (not just on Rosh Hashanah), and that Hoshanah Rabbah marks the last day when it's appropriate to savor the honeyed tastes of the holidays.
In an age when we strive to be conscious of our ecological footprints, when we're aware of how precious a resource water is (and how easily, and unthinkingly, we waste and pollute it), Hoshanah Rabbah may have new resonance. Today offers an opportunity to reconnect with our longing for rain, and for divine help in saving ourselves from the environmental dangers we know we don't want to bring upon ourselves, our children, and our home.
So what am I doing for Hoshanah Rabbah? Not going to shul; we're too small to have a weekday minyan, even on a minor festival day like this. But I went out to our sukkah this morning to bentsch lulav for the last time this year, my footsteps crunching on the frost-coated grass. I spent a while reading this series of Hoshanot [poetic prayers] for a Planet in Danger -- Reb Zalman's davenable English adaptations of the traditional prayers for salvation (meant to be read, one each day, during Sukkot, and then the whole cycle on Hoshannah Rabbah.) And now I am listening to an old classic tune that seemed like appropriate holiday music: "Rainmaker," by Traffic, off The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys...
And finally, I'm blogging an extemporaneous holiday prayer:
Source of all that is! Help us tap into Your sustenance in the coming year. Shower us with mayim chayyim, living waters, in all four worlds. In the world of actions and physicality, give us real water to irrigate with and to drink. In the world of emotions, let our hearts move us as mighty currents move the seas. In the world of thought, let our minds be as clean and clear as the purest waters. And in the world of essence, let us truly know ourselves as beings mostly made of water, sustained by Your ineffable wellspring in all that we do.