07 Aug 2015

Ekeb 5775: Rain Dance

Ekeb 5775: Rain Dance

 “Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet.

— Roger Miller

From the start, much of our relationship with G-d has revolved around rain. As the source of life, it is at the centre of our world, and when it falters, we naturally look to the heavens. We have prayed for rain, fasted for rain, sung for and rejoiced in rain. Great men and prophets were vindicated through its downpour[1]. Profound introspection and self-discovery occurred as a result of its absence.

Yet, while water is a precious lifeline for humanity, it does not always come to us by way of rain, especially in the ancient desert civilisations. Civilisations would thrive around rivers, and one of the most famous in the world was Egypt with its vital artery, the Nile River. The land of Israel would work on a very different and more uncertain irrigation system — its water would fall from the sky. Moshe saw it as important to highlight the contrast between the land they left as slaves and the land they would now enter as free people.

For the land to which you are coming to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you have left. There you would plant your seeds and water it by your own labours, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess…soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. (11:10-11)

The need for rain was a central aspect of life in ancient Israel and continues to be a central aspect of life in the land today. In earlier generations, lack of rain set off regular fasting cycles which were part of normal life. The majority of tractate Ta’anit and the third and fourth chapters of the ‘Laws of Fasts’ in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah are based entirely on how the nation responded to a lack of rain. These fasts were set in order to take time for profound national and individual self-examination.

On each and every day of the final seven fasts for lack of rain… the ark is taken out to the street of the city, and all the people gather together, while dressed in sackcloth. Ashes are placed on the ark and on the Torah scroll to heighten the grief and humble [the people’s] hearts

 Afterwards, one of the wise elders [of the community] stands before them while they are sitting. If there is no wise elder, a man of wisdom should be chosen. If there is no man of wisdom, a man of stature should be chosen.

 He should speak words of rebuke to them, telling them: “Brethren, it is not sackcloth and fasting that will have an effect, but rather repentance and good deeds…Similarly, in the words of the prophetic tradition, it is written, ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments’ [Joel 2:13].” He should continue in this vein according to his ability until they are humbled and turn [to God] in complete repentance[2].

 With the main source of water in the land of Israel coming from rain, life would be trying and difficult in its uncertainty, but it would also not allow us to fall asleep in its demand for our attention. The life lived around vital rainfall would serve as a possible stimulus towards a relationship with G-d. Indeed, G-d sets the relationship upon it.

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving G-d your Lord…I will give the rain for your land in season….(11:13-14)

 Whether one believes that the hydrologic setup of the land of Israel was divinely designed and ordained, or that it was just an odd aspect of the region, the realities that resulted were the same. The question of rainfall brought one’s mind to think of one’s life, one’s deeds and one’s Maker.

The concern about rain for our viability that we once held has now been removed from our consciousness in our modern, technologically-advanced world. We might hear that water is scarce or that there is a drought, but when we open our taps, out comes water. When one’s life is lived by uncertainty of rainfall it not only keeps one awake and mindful, but also aware of a world and its rhythms. For Israel, it became a second-nature recognition that the world is alive and responsive. We sought G-d’s attention and spoke to Him in our prayers of our needs and how much His reaction would mean to us. We believed that He in kind sought our attention and our mutual involvement in building a world.

The circumstances of modern life have changed a bit, but Moshe’s message and the value he taught about a land whose water source is the rain of the heavens is still powerful. We still need our world to respond to our needs, and we still can think about our lives and reach out to G-d when the need arises. We come alive when we become aware of a world that is itself conscious and reactive. We reach holiness when we recognise that its responsiveness comes from the heart and mind of G-d.

[1] I Melakhim, 18; Mishna, Ta’anit, 3:8.

[2] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Ta’anit, 4:1-2.