In the first chapter of Genesis we find the first references to water as we know it:
And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. And God said: ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas; and God saw that it was good.
Since that primal forming of the world as we know it, we have had seas and oceans here on Earth and see the clouds and receive rain from above, from the heavens. Traditional Jewish sources call this the “upper waters” and the “lower waters”. Throughout history, the people of Israel prayed for rain, specifically in the Land of Israel. In Deuteronomy 11 the bible tells us:
For the land, where you go in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from where you came out, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs; But the land, where you go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and you shall drink water as the rain of heaven comes down; A land which the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.
The Land of Israel has few plentiful natural resources and certainly water is not one of them. The tiny sea of the Galilee is the only body of fresh water within its borders. And, it seems, that God intended it to be so. The Land of Israel has suffered drought. And the People of Israel have special prayers for rain. To this day, if the winter season arrives and a certain number of days pass without rain, there are special prayers that the Jewish People add to their regular daily prayers for rain. If it becomes drastic, the rabbis call for fast days and public prayer. When the rains fall, there is true joy in the Land of Israel. People count the centimeters that have fallen with satisfaction. On the holiday of Tabernacles, when the holy Temple stood, there was a special ceremony which involved standing tall willow branches (which grow exclusively by water) next to the alter and pouring water from the Shiloah spring on the alter. Water is one way that the People of Israel connect to God.
Water is also a source of spiritual purification. Jewish law explains that a person who seeks spiritual purification must immerse his or herself in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Mikvahs have been discovered from ancient times all over the land of Israel – from the Golan and the Galilee, to Jerusalem and Masada. A mikvah is only considered a proper mikvah if it consists of natural water from a spring, sea or river and, of course, natural rainwater. Mikvah, in essence is a return to creation and rebirth, emerging from the natural waters as does a newborn and as the world itself. It represents a new beginning. Returning to the source.
The rabbis tell us in the Mishnah dealing the Day of Atonement:
Rabbi Akiva said “Fortunate are you, Israel, before whom do you become purified, and who purifies you? Before your Father in heaven – as it is written “…And I will sprinkle pure water upon you and purify you” and it says “God is the mikvah of Israel” – just as a mikvah purifies the impure, so too God purifies Israel.”