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Reflections on Rain

I was sitting at work in the CFOIC Heartland office a few weeks ago, when I heard the rumbling of thunder.  Within seconds it started raining.  I grabbed my car keys and ran out to get home, a minute drive away, to pull in my freshly laundered clothing, hanging on the line.  Only minutes later, it had already turned into a mere drizzle and the sun was back, hot and strong.  But when I went outside to go back to work, I chuckled out loud.   I saw the children of the neighborhood popping out their front doors, zipped up too warmly in coats, opening colorful umbrellas, and turning their lovable faces up to the sky to catch a delicious taste of raindrops, reveling in the year’s first rain.

I saw those upturned faces and I understood why G-d loves the rain.    When rain doesn’t come… when we search the skies for clouds, our eyes are turned heavenward.  We look up to the source—the source of all bounty– and we pray to G-d for it to wash over us.  And when the rain does come down, then again—our faces turn to the heavens, rejoicing in the abundance of G-d’s blessings.

I moved to Israel 20 years ago and I still get a thrill every time I’m reminded that I am in G-d’s country.  Only in Israel will you hear the newscaster giving the weather report saying “B’Ezrat Hashem—With G-d’s help—there will be rain this weekend.” Rain in this country is a serious affair.  Sure, I remember droughts in New York when we had to stop watering our lawns or were encouraged to put minimizers on our faucets.  But I never really thought about the rain before I moved to Israel…except when it ruined my plans.  Maybe that’s because I never lived where my people returned to the occupation of their forefathers.  Here, my people till the land and raise crops; here my people are shepherds.  Here, our beautiful Jaffa oranges need G-d’s rain.  Here our flocks of sheep need green grazing lands.

In fact, G-d tells us that this is exactly the nature of the Land of Israel which He has given to us:  “For the land, where you will go in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from where you have come out, where you did sow your seed, and did water it with your foot, as a garden of herbs; but the land, where you go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water as the rain of heaven come down; a land which the Lord your G-d cares for; the eyes of the Lord your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. ”   (Deuteronomy 11:10-14) The rain is not at our feet but comes to us from the Heavens and it is for us to look to G-d, to pray to Him and to obey His commandments so that we will then receive the rain.

Here we truly depend on our rainfall.  We ONLY get rain between November and March.  Only. In the spring and summer you can plan anything—family picnics, school trips… even an outdoor wedding, and you can count on no precipitation.  But it puts a lot of pressure on our rainy season.  The Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel is the main source of water for the country and it is almost never full enough. It reminds me of the old “Help Build a New Roof for the Orphanage” sign, where, as the money trickles in, the red mark moves up, encouraging people that their donations make a difference.  I feel the same way about rain in Israel.   There is tremendous interest after each rainfall to see the update on the news about how many centimeters the level of the Sea of Galilee has risen.  And our hearts fall each time we go for a family trip to swim in the Sea of Galilee and each time see how the beach area has grown by meters and you have to walk so much further to even reach the edge of the water.

My daughter Ahuva loves the rain.  She suffers terribly from the sweltering heat of Israel’s long summers and she waits for winter.  And when the first downpour comes, she feels a release.   That release as the heavens open up is a refreshing cleansing, a washing away of the stickiness, the grime of the past.  She finds it reassuring that the rainy season starts so soon after the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, when we just begged forgiveness for our past sins and pleaded with G-d for a year of plenty.  She feels that it’s a sign from G-d that all is forgiven and He has granted us a clean slate.   Everything and everyone is reborn.

One time, my son Avraham had to write a short speech for school about the Torah Portion of the Week.  His assigned portion was the 22nd chapter of Leviticus which begins, “If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments… then I will give you rain in due season and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit… and you shall eat your bread to the full.”   When he continued reading, he noticed that only in later verses is there a mention of additional rewards regarding security and safety in the land.  He found it amazing that the first promised reward from G-d for walking in his ways is– Rain!  I showed him many other places in the Scriptures which use rainfall as a sign of G-d’s blessings.  He turned to me and said, “I guess G-d wants us to work the land because the harder you work on something, the more attached you become to it!  It’s another way to bring you close to the land.  Like the people of Gush Katif who became so attached to the land because they lived off of the land and tended it so lovingly.”  Of course I hugged him for his words and when he finished letting me, he went back to his assignment.   The words from Leviticus, “I will give you rain in due season” spoke to him.  Just last week, when Hurricane Sandy was in the news, Avraham followed the stories and was moved.  It reinforced what he had discovered some time ago — how awesome G-d’s power is… that rain can either be a showering of blessing or a means of punishment.

One of the Hebrew words for rain is “matar”.  Just a few weeks ago, when I was in the synagogue, I noticed that the verb used for the punishment of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah was that same verb– “matar.”  “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven.” (Genesis 19:24)  How careful we must be to remain in G-d’s favor, so that His “matar” remains a downpour of blessing and not of retribution.

The story is told of a great Kabbalist of Safed named Choni HaMaagel.  The people of the town had once turned to him, during a long period of drought, and asked him to pray for rain.  So he drew a circle in the dusty dry ground, stepped into it, and called out, “Master of the Universe!  Your children have turned to me!  I swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until You have shown mercy towards them!”  At that moment a few drops of rain began to fall.   Choni exclaimed: “I prayed for enough rain to fill the wells and the ditches!” Torrential rain started to pour down from the Heavens.  Choni then called out: “I didn’t ask for this type of rain either. I prayed for rains of blessing and favor.” Immediately, the right kind of rain began to fall…

Our relationship with G-d has the closeness of a child to a father and we sometimes feel the need to cry out to Him, demanding what we need, pleading for blessing.  That power of ours is the power of prayer.  In Judaism there is an especially solemn, yet joyous, Prayer for Rain.  The Sages ordained that the prayer for rain be recited on the Feast of Tabernacles, the pilgrimage festival closest to the rainy season.  Since the festival itself is spent primarily in temporary outdoor booth dwellings it would be incongruous to pray for rain at a time when we want to eat and live outdoors.  Therefore the prayer is recited as the festival ends and is highlighted by the sentence “He makes the wind blow and He makes the rain descend.”   With these words we are acknowledging that G-d controls the very air that we breathe.  We then add this sentence to our daily prayers until Passover, when the rainy season ends.  Two weeks after the Feast of Tabernacles we add another sentence to our prayers, a request to send us rain immediately:  “Send us the dew and rain and send us the bounty of the heavens.”  The Sages understood that the Feast of Tabernacles is a time when all the people of Israel—men, women, children—would travel to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, from all over the land, to celebrate and worship together.  The actual request for rain is delayed, therefore, until everyone has had time to return home.

Just a few days ago, we woke up to one of those gray, wet mornings.  I sat up slowly, knowing that I’d have to empty the hall closet, searching for boots that fit the kids, for umbrellas whose spines hadn’t broken last season.  I knew I would have to rush and was annoyed that it had to be on a morning I needed to get to work early.  It didn’t help that my kids were thrilled and I had to pull Elitzur’s head in from where it was being poked out of his bedroom window, where he was “drinking the rain”.

I groaned as I watched Netanel and Elitzur walking to their bus stop, twirling their umbrellas in front of them, Gene Kelly style, skipping up and down the sidewalk curb, drenching themselves thoroughly.  Oh, why did I let them watch “Singing in the Rain”?  My daughter Avigayil told me that she tried bundling her two kids (my grandsons!) into the car, to drive them to Nursery School and Day Care, but her three year old refused to close his umbrella and insisted on walking.  So they did.  And he managed not to miss a single puddle, stomping happily into each one.  She noticed other grownups scurrying through the streets, huddled into their hoods, looking down, to avoid wetting their shoes and the hems of their clothes in lurking puddles.  She forced herself to slow down and look around her. She decided she should learn from the children.  They were looking up, letting the downpour wet their faces. Kids aren’t afraid—they’re eager—to get close to the Heavens.  She told me that she straightened her shoulders, turned