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Reflections on Prayer for Rain

The rains started last week. It was a long dry spell—too long– and when the meteorologists started predicting a storm, it was all people could talk about. The anticipation in the air was almost celebratory… as if an important guest was coming to town, or a popular sporting event was about to begin. The rain was predicted for last Shabbat and we all wore our coats to the Friday night service at synagogue, not wanting be drenched by the upcoming deluge. Nothing. We went to bed, hoping we’d be woken by the thrilling tapping of raindrops on our rooftops. Again, nothing. During lunch, a drizzle began and we opened our dining room sliding doors to the cold air, just so we could see and hear the rain. When it really started raining, it was all we could do to prevent Netanel and Elitzur from running out into the downpour; they stuck out their hands, their heads, even their tongue, to experience the glorious wetness. Ahuva and Avraham went off to synagogue for the Afternoon Service during a dry lull, but returned, soaked to the skin, when they were caught by the rain, only a few hundred yards from the house. But they were laughing as they peeled off their wet clothing, exhilarated with the joy of the long-awaited rainfall.

We had been waiting for so long. There is a lovely Prayer for Rain that is recited on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the Feast of Tabernacles, officially the start of the rainy season in Israel. The land of Israel relies heavily on rain for its crops and the tone then in the synagogue is a solemn one, the cantor donning a white robe as on the Day of Atonement. We are judged by G-d during this season and the prayer voices our anxiety for seasonal rains:

“May He send rain from the heavenly towers, To soften the earth with its crystal showers. You have named water the symbol of Your might, All that breathe life in its drops to delight. O’ revive those who praise Your powers of rain…”

There follows six sections,each referring to the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and the Twelve Tribes, and their connection with water. As when Abraham was asked to offer Isaac’s blood “like water”; and when Jacob bravely rolled the stone off the “well of water”; when Moses was drawn in a reed basket “out of the Nile’s water” and when he struck the rock and “out came water”. Aaron, the High Priest, who, on the Day of Atonement, bathed “with sanctified water”; the twelve tribes whom G-d brought through the “divided waters of the Dead Sea” and “sweetened their bitter water”in the desert.

After these examples, we ask G-d to remember the merits of these worthy ancestors and remember the goodness granted them all, and for our sake, “not hold back water”. The end of the prayer is dramatic. The cantor calls out: “For You are G-d, who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall. For a blessing and not for a curse-” and the congregation answers “Amen!” “For life, and not for death-“Amen!” For plenty, and not for scarcity-“ “Amen!”

Two weeks after the Feast of Tabernacles, the liturgy introduces a phrase to be recited daily from then until Passover: “Give us dew and rain as a blessing.” The custom of adding this blessing for dew and rain dates back to the times of the temples.At that time, Jews would gather in Jerusalem and bring sacrificial offerings during the Feast of Tabernacles. When the holiday was over, people began the long journey home. Those who lived far from Jerusalem needed time to get home, so the prayer is “delayed”, avoiding requesting rain at a time when it would make their travel difficult.

Three months ago the Jewish people, all over the world, prayed for the rains to begin in Israel. But for three months, there was no rain. Days and weeks passed and warm weather continued to be the norm. At first it was delightful… a glorious extension of summer, but then distress and despair began settling in. This is the seventh year of near-drought conditions, with this winter predicted to be the driest of them all. The drought covered the entire eastern Mediterranean region. Western Europe, in contrast, was suffering from too much precipitation.

At the end of November, Israel’s chief rabbis called for a public day of fasting and prayer in order to quench our parched country. They composed a special prayer for the occasion, urging people to include it in their prayers. The prayer speaks of G-d’s compassion allowing us to live in this land and personifies the land itself as feeling joy: “The hills are bursting with happiness… the branches giving forth fruit…the rivers running through the arid desert.” And then the tone changes and we cry out: “Why are You hiding Your face from us? There is no rain, the springs have run dry and there is no water to give our land. Why will the nations have the opportunity to say ‘Where is your G-d? Why is He doing this to His land and His people?’ And then the prayer beseeches, “Bring rain… for the sake of Your great name… for the sake of Your children who give of themselves with love… remember Your covenant with us… Turn the desert into lakes… Save your people and bless your inheritance…”

The day was designated to pray for a rainfall that would be a blessing for Israel, one which would allow the verse in Deuteronomy to be fulfilled: “G-d shall open for you His storehouse of goodness, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in its time, and to bless all your handiwork.”

Before dawn that day, a group of religious leaders even boarded a hot air balloon and ascended 1,000 feet in the air in order to pray for timely rain. They looked down at the dry Negev fields below them and prayed for the gates of heaven to open and strengthen the farmers across the country.

The Jordan Valley Religious Council held a mass prayer at the Sea of Galilee. Led by some of Israel’s most prominent rabbis, worshipers boarded a sailboat and sailed the Sea of Galilee. The water level of the Sea of Galilee is always a national concern and the present situation is a dire national emergency.

Rabbis, yeshiva students and other worshipers also gathered in the northern town of Hatzor Haglilit at the tomb of Honi HaMaagel to pray. They blew the ram’s horn and recited a special prayer. Throughout our history, the Jewish people have had periods of time when special prayers were said to open the heavens for rain. This was a very significant place to hold the prayer service, for Honi HaMaagel, Honi the Circle Drawer, lived in the time of the Second Temple period, and was called upon when rain was needed. Some of his interesting story is recorded in the Talmud: “They said to Honi, ‘Pray for rain.’ He prayed, but it did not rain. He drew a circle and stood in the middle of it and said before Him, ‘Lord of the world! Your children have turned to me. I swear by your great name- I will not move from here until you take pity on your children.’ It began to rain drop by drop. He said, ‘This is not what I wanted, but rain for filling up cisterns, pits and caverns.’ It began to rain violently. He said, ‘This is not what I wanted, but rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty.’ Then rain fell normally…”

At the beginning of December,another day of fasting and prayer was declared for rain. Thousands gathered at a massive prayer at the Western Wall. The drought has joined secular and religious, as all segments of the population pray for the blessing of rain. Our rabbis teach us that in this time of drought, people should unite and refrain from unnecessary disputes. Rabbis cal upon us “to examine and scrutinize our actions, to draw nearer to G-d with all our hearts and to pour out our supplication to him with a broken and downcast heart.”

In Kings, chapter 18, we read another story of drought and the need for the people of Israel to mend their ways and pray. The people had been worshiping Ba’al, and after three years of no rain, G-d tells Elijah to go and confront Ahab, King of Israel. Elijah commands him to bring together all the people of Israel and the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Ba’al to have their idol consume their sacrifice. They failed. Then Elijah built an altar, drenching it with water, along with the wood and the sacrifice. He prayed to G-d, Who sent down a fire to consume it all. The people saw and believed and Elijah told Ahab to return home, for rain was coming!

About a month ago, the rabbis issued a call to add the “Ve’anenu, Answer Us” prayer to the central prayer of the three daily services. The “Answer Us” prayer is a special prayer for rain and for G-d’s mercy in general, and is inserted into our prayers upon the call of all the rabbis in the land. It struck a chord within me that we are truly in the depths of a crisis, a state of emergency. The prayer is poignant and powerful, perhaps due to the fact that it is so simple and straightforward:

“Answer us with mercy, O’ Creator of the world… Hearer of prayers, bestow rain and dew on the earth, and enrich the whole world with Your goodness… Save and protect this year from all harm, and from any type of punishment or destruction, and give her hope and peace. Have mercy on us and on our crops and fruits, and shower us with rains of blessing… and grant us good decrees,and reveal Your generous compassion and treat Your children with kindness.Accept our prayers with willingness and mercy.”

I think I know why G-d placed us in this position. What do we do when the land is dry, when our fields, our riverbeds, our lips are parched? What did we do, two weeks ago, when deadly flames licked their treacherous way through the Carmel Mountains and communities? We looked up. We fixed our eyes on the heavens, searching for clouds, searching for G-d’s presence, G-d’s bounty. And we prayed.

G-d tells us “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall last to the time of the grape harvest, and the grape harvest shall last to the time for sowing. And you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely. I will give peace in the land, (Leviticus 26: 3-6)

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities