Does Israel have a fall? If we’re thinking of forests of red and gold, and nature winding down to a quiet dormancy-not really.
Fall in Israel is much more complex. There is an ending, a closing, as we bring in the last of the year’s harvest-the grapes, figs, pomegranates, and dates that ripened during the summer. Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which comes in September or October, is the “Holiday of the Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field” (Exodus 23:16).
But at the same time, there is a joyful and much-awaited renewal that comes with the first rains in at least half a year. These first drops bring the parched earth to life, and the first wildflowers begin sprouting. We plow the fields and sow the wheat, praying that the rains will continue throughout the winter and the grain will grow.
Fall in Israel is both an ending and a beginning, and the Feast of Tabernacles celebrates both aspects of this brief season. On the one hand, we are grateful for the harvest that closes the agricultural cycle. At the same time, we anxiously await the rain that will begin the next one. The Holiday of the Ingathering is in many ways the Holiday of Rain, and all its major prayers and rituals focus on the coming rain. Today, in synagogues around the world, we start praying for rain on the last day of Sukkot.
In ancient times, two rituals were performed on each of the seven days of Sukkot. Branches of willow, a highly water-dependent plant, were placed around the altar in the Temple. And each evening, water was drawn from the Siloam spring in Jerusalem and, after an all-night celebration, poured over the altar. The only time during the year that water as well as wine was poured over the altar, this water libation was performed with dancing, singing, and great joy. On the last day of the holiday, Hoshana Rabba, the day of the great hosanna, these rituals came to a culmination. It is on this day, “the last day of the festival, the great day,” that Jesus speaks to the people and says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38). These images of thirst and drink and living water always have great force in Israel’s semi-arid climate, but especially during the season and the holiday when everyone was focused on the coming rains. Jesus’ words thus resonated powerfully for his audience, as they do for us when we see them in the context of their time and place.
At Neot Kedumim-The Biblical Landscape Reserve of Israel, texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament come to life in their original context of the land.