I never gave much thought to the significance of rain until I moved to Miami.
Rabbis in Miami face the High Holy Days with more than the usual rabbinic
anxiety. In South Florida, the holiday season coincides with hurricane
In the past three years of living in Florida, I have reflected
often on the ways in which Judaism invests rain with religious meaning. Prayers
for rain mark the culmination of the High Holy Days.
The Land of Israel
is known as the land “flowing with milk and honey.” However, Israel is not a
land flowing with water.
The limited resource of water in the Holy Land
is a central feature of biblical theology. Rain in the Promised Land plays an
essential role in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish
Deuteronomy explains the unique spiritual essence of
precipitation in the Land of Israel.
Unlike Egypt, where the water comes
up from one’s feet, Israel is a land where people must look to the heavens for
rain. In Egypt, it was easy to fall into idolatrous practices. The natural
abundance of water from the Nile made the Egyptians worship the products of
their own hands. However, this spiritual shortcoming is prevented in a land
where the natural resources are scarce. The need to look heavenward for rain and
the need to pray for rain continually remind the Israelites of God’s involvement
and concern for our livelihood.
“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.”
(Deuteronomy 11:10) God’s responsibility for
dispensing rain in the Land of Israel is a central aspect of our covenantal
identity. Not only do we live in a land that depends upon God for rain, but
God’s gift of rain will be conditioned upon the fulfillment of our covenantal
Every day, twice a day, the Jewish people express our love and
commitment to God in the words of the Shema.
The second paragraph of the
Shema is an excerpt from Deuteronomy about the connection between our covenant
with God and rain: If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you
this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,
I will grant the rain for your land in season. Take care not to be lured away to
serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against
you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no
(Deuteronomy 11:13) The notion that the natural events of weather
are reflective of God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people is a
difficult one for many modern Jews. This paragraph is omitted in the version of
the Shema found in Reform prayer books.
However, the theological lessons
of Deuteronomy can be teased out without adopting a literal reading of the text.
Is it true that rain falls in Israel only if the Jewish people are observing all
the commandments? Or perhaps our daily recitation of the Shema establishes a
consciousness about our fragility in a world where we cannot control the
elements. In such a world of limited human power, we recognize that our lives
are a gift from God. The recognition of our dependence leads to a sense of
responsibility. The Jewish response to the precarious nature of life is to find
meaning and purpose in commandedness.
Rain in the Land of Israel serves
as a reminder of our covenant with God.
According to the Torah, the
scarcity of rain in Israel is a spiritual safeguard. As the Israelite nation
prepares to enter the Promised Land, the Book of Deuteronomy is consumed with a
fear regarding the spiritual danger of sovereignty.
Once we leave the
desert and settle in our own land, we might forget about God’s role in our
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live
in, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty
and you forget the Lord your God who led you through the great and terrible
wilderness, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you
from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, and you say to
yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for
me.” Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to prosper
For 40 years, the Israelites depended upon God for
sustenance in a hostile environment lacking natural resources. That dependency
cultivated an intimacy with God and an appreciation for our human
However, when we enter the Promised Land, and we build our own
houses and plant our own crops, we might grow arrogant and distant from God.
According to the medieval commentator Rashbam, it is precisely because of this
threat that God instituted the festival of Succot at the time of the harvest,
when we are most likely to glorify in our material success: Therefore, the
people leave their houses, which are full of everything good at the season of
the ingathering, and dwell in booths, as a reminder of those who had no
possessions in the wilderness and no houses in which to live. For this reason,
the Holy One established the Festival of Succot... that the people should not be
proud of their well-furnished houses. (Rashbam, Commentary on Leviticus 23:43)
The purpose of dwelling in the succa, according to Rashbam, is to remind us of
our vulnerability in the desert and to return us to that ideal spiritual state
of humility and dependency. Without a yearly reminder of our frail human
condition, we might grow too haughty in our own land and begin to worship the
power of our own hands.
The festival of Succot culminates in the holiday
of Shmini Atzeret. This obscure holiday embodies one main ritual – tefilat
geshem, the prayer for rain. Focusing on the uncertainty of rain is the perfect
conclusion to the holiday season.
One of the recurring themes of the High
Holy Days is the nature of human mortality.
As human beings, our
existence is vulnerable and ephemeral. Will we be here next year? “Who shall
live, and who shall die, who by fire and who by water?” This yearly reminder of
our fragile human condition is meant to jolt us out of our complacency, to
inspire us in our search for greater meaning and purpose in life.
central High Holy Day motif finds its dramatic finale in tefilat geshem as the
cantor comes forward during the Musaf prayers, dressed in a kittel, the white
burial shroud, and invoking Yom Kippur melodies. We conclude the spiritual
marathon of the High Holy Days with prayers for rain, humbled by the awareness
of our fragility and our dependence upon God for sustenance and survival. As we
pray for rain, we also rejoice in the notion that God cares for us and keeps His
eyes on us, from year’s beginning to year’s end.
Rain will be a daily
reminder of our human limitations and the greater meaning and purpose we can
find in accepting a covenant with God.
On this Shmini Atzeret (next
Thursday), may our prayers for rain remind us of our vulnerabilities and our
responsibilities to God, “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to
Lauren Berkun is director of the rabbinic and synagogue program at
the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.