Rabbis and the rain

Rav Yehuda considers the annual return of the rains as significant as the giving of the Torah.

Rav Yehuda considers the annual return of the rains as significant as the giving of the Torah. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Rav Yehuda considers the annual return of the rains as significant as the giving of the Torah.
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
 FIRST RAINS take me back to the desert.
I can close my eyes and bring the scent to mind, run the taste of promise along my tongue. The wind turns heavy, thick with earth and sky. For an instant, before the heavens open, everything hangs in stillness. Then the first fat drops find their way down to the ground, a frisson in the land as water slips within its skin.
During the years we lived in California, my housemates and I used to celebrate the first rain of the season by bringing out our favorite vessels, nestling our earthen bowls and hand-fired pottery in the garden, setting our sturdy jugs and delicate cobalt glasses on the little porch. We’d catch those long-awaited drops, knowing there was power in the sky’s first offering, feeling the promise of the day.
Jewish tradition ascribes great importance to the day of first rain, when the long dry months of summer at last give way and winter rains come at last. A talmudic saying attributed to Rav Yehuda considers the annual return of the rains as significant as the giving of the Torah.
Both rain and Torah represent divine gifts – gifts that restore life and bring renewal to barren land and dusty hearts. Another talmudic rabbi teaches that the return of the rains is as significant as the creation of the heavens and the earth, while a third maintains that the rain is equivalent to God’s eventual resurrection of the dead. The symbolic equivalence suggests that, for the sages, the rain is a powerful sign of creation and transformation. Rain turns the hills green, allows the desert to bloom. Humans too, the sages suggest, are like seeds about to sprout.
But for all the rabbis’ lavish praise of rain, the Talmud recognizes that rain must fall at a specific time. In the land of Israel, rain falls from late fall to early spring. During these few months, the land must store sufficient rain to ensure its fertility for the coming year. The holiday of Sukkot anchors the beginning of the Jewish rain calendar. On the final day of Sukkot, or in Israel, on Simchat Torah, communities insert an additional phrase into the Amida prayer that praises God for causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall.
The timing of this insertion was actually the subject of an ancient rabbinic argument. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that one should begin the recitation on the first day of Sukkot, and Rabbi Yehoshua, felt such a course was inviting disaster. For Yehoshua, rain on Sukkot represents a sign of divine displeasure. More pragmatically, we might say, no one wants to sit outside during a stormy festival. The Talmud ultimately resolves the disagreement by distinguishing this liturgical phrase from an actual prayer for rain. The praise of God’s rain power begins on the final day of Sukkot, as soon as the time is ripe for rain.
The prayer for rain, incorporated into a later passage in the weekday Amida, does not begin until later in the season.
If the rain is significantly delayed, the Mishna calls individuals to undertake a series of ritual fasts. If the drought continues, the fasts are extended and expanded to eventually include the entire community.
During the fast, the community enacts and embodies the danger of drought, mapping religious and ecological crisis onto the human body. Drought will bring famine if left unchecked; it will cause the earth to wither and its inhabitants to starve.
As a ritual practice, fasting heightens our awareness of human vulnerability, underscoring the urgency of our physical needs and the fragility of our flesh. It transforms the rhythms of ordinary life, forcing body and mind alike to live in altered time. While the Mishna’s rain fast has a penitential dimension, it also aims to bring home this lesson: how intertwined our own lives are with the life of the land.
These days, I live far from the desert, in a land where rain falls freely without regard for the season. But still, I know, life hangs in the balance. A few years ago, a brutal drought in the American Midwest forced farmers to plow under their fields; many sold off animals they could no longer afford to keep. Drought bears down now on familiar California landscapes, turning the hills into tinder, cracking open dry ground. And last year’s dry winter has depleted Israel’s water reserves.
As Sukkot calls our eyes through the sukka’s canopy to the brilliant autumn sky, let us remember how delicate the balance, how vital the turning. May rain come as a blessing, for us and for all the world.
 Rabbi Julia Watts Belser is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Georgetown University