Though Israel is my home, I spent the High Holy Days in Ohio. The intense season of the Days of Awe finally came to a close with the prayer for rain on Shmini Atzeret, which in Israel is celebrated along with Simhat Torah. But in Ohio (as everywhere in the Diaspora), Shmini Atzeret stands on its own, followed the next day by the dancing fervor around the Torah. Here, the cantor sang the prayer for rain in a beautiful baritone. From that point onward, we began saying: "You cause the wind to blow and rain to fall (mashiv haruah umorid hageshem)" in our prayers.
Yet in Ohio, it had been raining for two weeks solid, and consistently through the summer as well. So why do we pray for rain in Ohio? One simple answer is that in the Diaspora, many prayers or blessings are recited in which the Land of Israel is central. The second paragraph of the Shema, for example, emphatically states that if we abide by the laws of the Torah, God will give us rain in the land at the proper season (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). But the deeper answer isn't so simple - it has to do with yearning, with desire, with the awareness of what we call home.
Paul Simon sang of yearning for his beloved: "And as I watch the drops of rain/Weave their weary paths and die/I know that I am like the rain/There but for the grace of you go I" ("Kathy's Song"). The last line plays on the oft-repeated maxim: "There but for the grace of God go I." Perhaps Simon suggests that desire for his beloved, like an awareness of divine providence, turns him inward as he watches the rain fall outside, granting him a sense of integrity and grace. Yet how can missing one's beloved provide protection as a source of grace?
In my case, or in the case of all Jews who live in the Diaspora, how can yearning for Israel be a source of grace? That is to say, why do we pray for rain to fall in Israel from Ohio? A similar halachic question was raised in the 17th century. When a number of Spanish exiles had settled in Brazil, they found that the rainy season in South America came at a different time of the year, not synchronous with the climate pattern in the Land of Israel. So they appealed to a rabbi in Salonica as to whether they could change the recital of the prayer for rain from the winter to the summer months. This was the first recorded legal inquiry directed by Jews of the New World to those of the Old. It was, at that time, deemed permissible for them to say the prayer for rain in the season appropriate to their climate, not aligned with winter in Israel.
Yet that is not what Jews practice today in the Diaspora. The prayer for rain is consistently recited, from Shmini Atzeret to Pessah, throughout the world outside of Israel. It serves not only as a prayer for rain in the land, but also as a historic reminder of the irrevocable relationship of the Jews with the soil of Israel. This relationship reflects a unique dependence on God's protective care: "There but for the grace of God go I."
For this very reason, the Israelites were given a land of hills and valleys which could not be irrigated by human effort, rather it was dependent on rain from the sky. Moses says as much in his last long speech to the people before crossing the Jordan River: "But the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year's beginning to year's end" (Deut. 11:11-12). Agriculture could not be contingent on a human system of irrigation, as in Egypt which was dependent on the overflowing banks of the Nile. Rather God gave us the Land of Israel so that we would turn to Him in prayer. Where there is no rain, there is prayer.
Now the level of the Kinneret stands more that 1.3 meters below the lower red line set by the government, the red line being 213 meters below sea level. If the level of the Kinneret reaches the black line, a mere two meters below the red one, no water can be drawn. So we must pray fervently.
In last week's Torah reading, Parshat Noah, the most common
term for rain, geshem, first appears (Genesis 7:12). Just as the Inuit have many terms for snow, there are at least seven terms for rain in Hebrew: geshem, yoreh (early rain), malkosh (late rain), revivim (light rain), se'irim (raindrops), mabul (flood or very heavy rain), matar (rain, from which we derive the term mitria, umbrella). Biblical Israel developed a very finely tuned vocabulary for rain. My favorite term is the simple geshem - which, in modern Hebrew, relates to the verb meaning to fulfill, lehagshim, to realize or concretize one's ideals.
We pray for rain in Ohio because our prayers should be directed homeward, to Israel. May we all, one day, realize (lehagshim) the dream of return. Our desire for home is, paradoxically, what makes us whole. For "I know that I am like the rain, there but for the grace of you go I." This year may our yearnings be stirred and the rains fall generously, soaking the land and filling the Kinneret brim-full.