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Our Waterlogged Prayers

As we endure a season of destructive storms and surging seas, why on earth would we pray for rain?

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In Egypt you looked down at your feet to find water. In the Promised Land you will raise your eyes and look to the heavens. Your land will be watered by rain instead of irrigation canals. Symbolically, this means that the most crucial needs of life are not those that can be met by the work of your hands. It is not just the power of technology and it is certainly not the enslavement of others that provides your essential sustenance. This passage goes on to say that what will determine the success of your endeavors in this new land is whether your community lives by the commandments. The promise is that these particular laws—a complete package that includes sustainable farming and fair civil law—lived by these particular people in this particular place will create a harmony that resonates with God, that lets the world work smoothly. What is needed is a balanced relationship between all the parts of the equation: human society, the land, and God. And rain is the symbol of that relationship.

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In our own era, Americans have farmed like the Pharaoh. We have used the power of technology to irrigate land without rain, making tomatoes and cantaloupes available year round. We have even relied on the labor of sojourners, people who live apart from those they serve in conditions that the served would never tolerate for themselves, people who are needed but whose growing power gives rise to fear.

And we have been forced to remember that life on earth actually does teeter between deluge and drought. Our focus on power over balance has not protected us from the danger of either kind of water crisis. In these circumstances, the prayer for rain is a powerful offering. The tradition teaches us to read it metaphorically, as an expression of longing for spiritual nourishment, challenging us to live in a way that allows God’s gaze to fall upon us for a blessing. And we can read it more literally as well: May we learn to live in a way that nurtures balance. May our interactions with the natural world leave us neither parched nor drowned. May the rains in their season bring bounty and blessing.

Inserting a plea for rain into the thrice-daily prayer is an expression of hope that the relationship with God, as symbolized by rain, is in working order. But in Deuteronomy, that relationship is specifically tied to the land that you are crossing the Jordan to inherit. The Bible does not make it clear whether outside that land there is any relationship between rain and God. So, the rabbis of the Talmud, living in Babylon, made a bold move when they inserted the plea for rain into their own liturgy. They claimed a role in that relationship for themselves, even in Diaspora. And they went further: They changed the date to one that made sense in Babylon both geographically (it comes later than in Israel) and culturally (it is defined by a solar, not a lunar calendar). Even outside that perfect triad of land, law, and community they claimed a part in the harmony of heaven and earth. Sending their prayer heavenward, they imagined that their land, too, could be one upon which God’s gaze is fixed, one that is more like the Promised Land than like Egypt.

By this Babylonian logic, one might think that the prayers for rain should be added in each place according to the agricultural needs of that place. Now that the Jews have made homes in a thousand climates, should there be a thousand different climate-related additions to the Amidah? Traditional commentators argued over this question, and here is their conclusion: It’s fine to pray privately about the weather in your particular geography, but when it comes to communal prayer, everybody outside Israel/Palestine adds the special phrase on Dec. 5 like the Babylonian Jews: Grant dew and rain for a blessing upon the face of the earth.

This decision carries the boldness of the rabbis in Babylon to new levels. Adding the prayer for rain in Babylon extended the physical boundaries within which one could expect to live in relationship with God. Keeping Dec. 5 as the transition date around the world makes it explicit that the prayer for rain is about much more than rain. By leaving behind the literal facts of seasonal rainfall, the tradition reveals this prayer as an expression of the quest for a balanced relationship between heaven, earth, and humanity.

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The homily was very nice, but actually the prayer for rain that is recited 3x a day is for rain in the Land of Israel only. At least that’s what the authors of the prayers had in mind. So the question is really a non-starter.

mouskatel says:

What David said.

Helen Plotkin says:

Sources from a variety of perspectives explain the timing of the prayers for rain in the Diaspora as corresponding to the Babylonian agricultural seasons, and specifically not to those of the land of Israel. See for example Daniel Landes’ commentary on page 122 of “My People’s Prayerbook: Amidah” and this article on chabad.org: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2060070/jewish/Why-Is-the-Prayer-for-Rain-Based-on-the-Civil-Calendar.htm. Both leave room for the idea that this timing serves to connect all the Diaspora, beyond issues of rain.

Karen Schulte says:

What an interesting and touching exegesis of the prayer for rain
which is also a prayer for the relationship we have between earth and heaven, the sacred power of water and soil, the need to respect what is life-giving in our world so that we can continue to survive here on earth.

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Our Waterlogged Prayers

As we endure a season of destructive storms and surging seas, why on earth would we pray for rain?

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