Rabbinical School Divrei TorahPraying For Rain
I like rainy days. Rain settles my mind. It’s great for the small patch of grass behind our house and the tomato plants on the porch. And I like the air and the mist that hovers over the ground after the rain has stopped.
But rain is not always so timely.
For example: when you spend two days building a sukkah, going back and forth to the hardware store to replace rotted-out metal braces and 2-by-4s that warped during the winter and when you didn’t think to place your children’s timeless sukkah decorations into plastic sleeves and when you have set out a new tablecloth and spent hours cleaning the metal chairs that rusted…well, the hope is that, on that first morning of Sukkot, the sun will rise, you will say the blessing, shake the lulav, scratch off the scent of the etrog, look up at the sky through the tiny holes in the schach and be warmed by the glorious sun. It’s not a day for the earth under the sukkah to turn to mud or the wood to begin to warp again or the meal to be moved inside.
But when it rains, it rains, and when there’s sun, there’s sun, and, for the most part, there’s not a thing in the world we can do to change that.
In the agrarian society in which our ancient tradition emerged, religious ritual was deeply connected to the cycles of the bounty of the earth. During this time of year, particularly for those finishing their summer harvest, trimming perennial plants and waiting for the rain to moisten the soil and strengthen the roots in their fields, rain is at the center of Jewish thought and prayer.
At the end of Sukkot, during Shemini Atzeret, we add a verse to the second blessing of the Amidah called “gevurot geshamim,” meaning the power of rain. The verse — “mashiv ha’ruach u’morid hagashem” — offers praise to God for the blessing of rain.
In mishna Taanit, our ancient rabbis debated the timing of adding this verse to the Amidah. Rabbi Eliezar taught that we should add these words from the first day of Yom Tov Sukkot.
Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed: no, we should begin to praise God for rain on the last day of Sukkot, as rain during Sukkot would be a “siman k’lalah” — a curse on the festival; it would prevent us from dwelling in our sukkot. (A parallel teaching in mishna Sukkah adds a funny but unnerving image: rain during Sukkot is like a servant who comes to fill a cup for his master and the master pours the ladle in his face).
When Rabbi Eliezar clarified that he was not referring to prayer requesting rain, but rather praising God’s power to bring rain, Rabbi Yehoshua was ready with a response: if so, we should say this prayer all year long! No, gevurot geshamim should only be said when rain is actually a blessing.
I tend to agree, particularly during Sukkot. Rain during Sukkot is not good.
But our mishna goes on to present a more serious problem than rain falling during Sukkot: what happens if the rainy season commences and the rains never come? What then?
To begin, particular individuals take on three fasts. If the next month (Rosh Hodesh Kislev) arrives and there’s still no rain, the Court decrees three fasts for the whole community. If these fasts pass “and were not answered,” the Court decrees three more fasts, then another three, then an additional seven — now 13 fasts for the community.
I have to admit, when I first learned these mishnayot, I went to a bit of a skeptical place. How again will prayer and fasting call the rains down from the heaven?
I came back to the text.
There is a clear practical concern: fasting preserves the resources of the community. Mirroring the narrative of Joseph in Egypt, the community cuts back on its consumption of the resources it will need in case of sustained drought.
But there are spiritual insights as well. This is a time of year when we’re called to wrestle with the possibility that prayer has real and significant impact in the world. The biblical stories of Hannah and Jonah, two of our haftarot during the Yamim Noraim, reveal prayer to be transformational: after Hannah prays, she conceives, and after Jonah prays, he is re-birthed into the world from the belly of a fish. At the very least, their prayers enter both Hannah and Jonah into radically new spiritual realities.
And finally, it’s telling that the Court decreed full communal fasts. I imagine members of the community came together, sought solace in one another, shared experience, prayed, and relied on a collective strength. They were not just fasting to atone for wrongs so that the rains would magically come. It was not mere magic. Recall that the rabbis named their prayer gevurot geshamim: not just rain, but the Power of the Rains.
There is an implicit recognition, brought to life in the Gemara, that rain is an expression of God’s power — not theirs. Fasting was a response to precisely this recognition; a commitment to living their lives together with humility of their humanity.