"Shlach lachmicha al pnei hamayim, ki brov hayamim timxa'enu" (Koheles 11:1) "Send your bread upon the face of the waters, for after many days you will find it." It is universally understood as a metaphore, but there is disagreement as to what Shlomo HaMelech is trying to recommend.
It is hard to read the expression "upon the face of the waters," without hearing the echoes of Bireishis (1:2) "...and the Spirit of G-d hovered upon the face of the waters." We are brought back to the womb from which our universe sprung. This is the symbolism involved in the mikvah, to enter a pool of water and come out reborn as a new person.
The word for water, "mayim", is also used to refer to any liquid, not just water, much in the same way that lechem sometimes refers to food in general. Hirsch on Bireishis (on 1:9) comments that mayim is being used as an antonym for yavesh, dry. As a symbol, it is used to represent change. (RaMBaM, Moreh Hanevuchim 2:30, Abravanel on Bireishis 1:2, Hirsch ibid.) Whereas a solid is immutable in form, liquid is subject to constant change of shape. As it says in Genesis (49:1), "Unstable as water."
The fact that both creation and change are represented by water is no coincidence. The terminology for the two is the same. As the mishna says, (Pirke Avos 2:9) "Go out and see which is the best trait a person should acquire.... R. Shimon said 'One who sees what is born (i.e. the consequences) of an action'". Both creation and change are called "birth".
The Gemara (Taanis 2a - 2b) relates that there are three "keys" that Hashem holds, that He will never give these responsibilities to a messenger on a permanent basis: rain, birth, and revival of the dead. The Gemara then suggests a fourth "key", sustenance, to add to the list, but then explains that the power over rain is the "key" to sustenance, and is therefor already included on the list.
This would explain the connection between Succos, the holiday celebrating Divine Sustenance (see last week), and water. We hold an esrog, a fruit that according to Rabban Gamliel (Succah 39b) requires so much water for its existence that for the laws of shmittah it should be considered a vegetable. On Sh'mini Atseres we pray for rain, and start praising Hashem as the "Causer of wind to blow and rain to fall" in Sh'moneh Esrei. In the time of the Beis HaMikdosh we would perform nissuch hamayim, anointing the mizbei'ach with water, only on Succos.
In a similar vein, the Torah is often compared to water. In Baba Kamah (17a), the gemara says "Water refers only to torah. As it says (Yeshayah 55), 'Have all who are thirsty, go to the water.'" Torah is actually a unification of the two concepts we discussed above. The first word of Chumash, "BiReishis" is interpreted to read "'Bi' - because of - 'Reishes' - the Torah (which is called Reishis)" the world was created. Chazal teach us that the A-lmighty "looked into the torah and created the world." It is also our sustenance. "For it is our life, and the length of our days." Torah is symbolized by water since it is directly linked to each.
The connection between change, creation, and sustenance is critical. Deism is a school of philosophy which supports "The Watchmaker Theory". In it, G-d is compared to a watchmaker, and the universe, a watch. Just as a watchmaker can make a watch, wind it up, and leave it to run its own, they assert that the universe, although created by G-d, was left on its own since then.
This theory is logically unsound. G-d created everything. This means that matter, and therefor space and time, were created by Him. If He created time, then He can't be bound by it. For Him there is no past, present and future, no before and after. Thus, it is meaningless to say that He created the universe and afterwards left it to run on its own. "Afterwards" is meaningless with respect to Hashem. When He created the world, He created every moment of history equally, since "history" is also a term meaningful only from our perspective. This implies that what we call "creation" is actually just the first moment, by our reckoning, of a continuing state of Divine Sustenance. For this reason, Succos, celebrating sustenance, is juxtaposed in the year with Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of the world.
We are left, though, with our original pasuk. When it talks about sending bread "on the face of the waters", for which symbolic message is the water being used?
One could understand the pasuk in each of three different lights. Shlomo could be telling us to cast are bread out to help another, even though we see it as casting our resources into a sea of change. This is the S'phornu's understanding of the pasuk. One should be helpful, even when there is no personal profit involved.
Rashi interprets this pasuk as an exhortation to do favors for your fellow man, for your kindness will be repaid to you. "Send your bread upon the face of the waters", give your aid to someone else. Your possessions should be contributed to the sustenance of another, in a true demonstration of imitatio dei.
One could also understand this to mean the waters of "Torah". As the Rav from Lisa (Taalumos Chachmah ibid.) understands the pasuk, teach your torah to the masses, for maybe one person will receive the message.
These three interpretations are not mutually exclusive, one can follow them all. Let us hope and pray that following Shlomo HaMelch's advice will bring Hashem to reward us with another pasuk involving an imagery of water, "ushavtem mayim bisason mima'aynei hayeshua - and you will joyously draw water from the wells of salvation."© 1995 The AishDas Society