Water shows up in other places – odder places – as well: for example, in the context of the special requirement that the 4 species must be ‘hadar’. The quintessential lack of hiddur, listed at the beginning of the Mishna (3rd chapter of Sukkah), before getting into greater detail, is desiccation. A dried out lulav, devoid of moisture, is disqualified. It must contain some water. Even stranger is a discussion in the Gemara about how we know that the Biblical ‘pri etz hadar’ actually refers to the etrog. One of the Gemara’s suggestions is that the word ‘hadar’ is related to the Greek work ‘hydro’, meaning ‘water’. The etrog is an extremely water-intensive fruit. And of course, the arava, or willow branch, is called the ‘willow of the brook’ in the Torah.
The question is, does this connection indicate anything beyond the notion that we are initiating the rainy season and praying for rain?
The connection to the 4 species in general, and to hidur mitzvah specifically, indicate that there is something more to it. About 8 years ago, Rav Yehuda Brandes published this homiletic article about a Midrashic/mythic narrative which appears in several sources, including the Bavli and Yerushalmi, and discusses a potsherd which Kind David removed when he was digging the foundations of the Beit Ha-Mikdash. The watery abyss began to overflow and threaten the world, until King David, with the help of Ahitofel, succeeded in bringing the waters back to their proper levels. The Bavli (Sukkah 53a) mentions this story in the context of the Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eva, explaining the reason for the 15 steps, corresponding to the 15 Sir Ha-ma’a lot Psalms, which served as the Levite bandstand during the celebration. The upshot of R. Brandes’ article (the whole thing is highly recommended) is that water represents id or primality. If it is completely suppressed, the world is deprived of creativity, growth, and, in a nutshell, life. If it is unfettered, it threatens to overwhelm everything and become a completely destructive force.
Hidur mitzvah serves a similar function. It allows us to inject a bit of personality into the potentially ‘dry’ performance of a mitzvah. It allows for a balance between a rote, impersonal attitude toward mitzvah-performance on one hand, and antinomianism or total flexibility on the other hand. Like water, which gives life when it can be integrated into an existing structure, hiddur mitzvah allows for individuation within the structure of mitzvah observance. Our challenge on Sukkot is to find a way to allow full expression but through the halakha – to be able to see the stars even though we sit inside a structure.