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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?

Helen Plotkin
December 03, 2012
Diane Hammond/Flickr
Diane Hammond/Flickr
Diane Hammond/Flickr
Diane Hammond/Flickr

On Dec. 5, Jews outside Israel will start praying for rain.

A couple of months ago, at the end of Sukkot, the phrase who makes the wind blow and the rain fall was already added to the Amidah, the long prayer at the center of the three services that punctuate the Jewish day. According to the Talmud (Ta’anit 2a), that line is not really a prayer for rain; it’s just a “mention” of God’s power, a nod to the fact that only in the months between Sukkot and Passover does the Middle East have any hope for rain.

The Dec. 5 addition, on the other hand, is an explicit plea: Grant dew and rain for a blessing upon the face of the earth. The date of this change is based on the rhythm of the rains in Babylonia, the first real home for the Jews in Diaspora. It falls on the 60th day after the autumnal equinox, calculated by a solar calendar. In Israel, the plea for rain is added on a different date—one determined by the lunar calendar, like all the other important Jewish moments. In Talmudic times, almost all Jews lived in either Israel/Palestine or Babylonia. The logic is this: Begin your prayer for rain at the time when the rainy season begins in earnest—as calculated in the place where you live.

What sense can it possibly make, then, for Jews in Brooklyn, Amsterdam, or Toronto, never mind Brazil or South Africa, to pray for rain beginning Dec. 5? In many of those places, such a prayer seems at best ill-timed and at worst counterproductive. As we endure an autumn like the one much of the East Coast faced this year, filled with destructive storms and surging seas, a lack of water hardly seems like our biggest problem at this time of year.

The answer is that sometimes rain is not just rain. All over the Jewish sources, from the Bible to the Talmud to the prayer book, rain stands in for a more general earthward flow of divine nurture. Talking about rainfall is a way of talking about the relationship between God and humanity. When one is in good shape, so is the other. In fact, water is a major plot-driver of the Bible. Sometimes the narrative suspense comes from a scarcity of water, and sometimes it comes from being overwhelmed by too much water. Both kinds of water crisis are familiar in the 21st century. Our news is full of droughts and floods, of rising sea levels and encroaching deserts. Can we learn something of value from the ancient ways of thinking about water?

In the Bible, there are two grand creation narratives that hinge on splitting dangerous waters to make a dry space for life. One, the creation of the world, starts in the first chapter of Genesis. The other, the creation of the nation of Israel, is in the book of Exodus. In Genesis, on the second day the roiling mass of primordial liquid is split apart by a stretched out layer that separates the waters above from the waters below. The world is created in the gap between the waters. And in Exodus, the birth of the nation is possible only when the waters break, when the Red Sea is parted to allow space for passage. In each of these creation narratives there is a moment when the success of the entire venture is threatened by water, when the seed of the future is held in a tiny ark bobbing tenuously on a watery expanse.

When things go bad in the generation of Noah, God un-creates the world by letting loose the waters above and the waters below to tumble back into an undifferentiated swirl. In Noah’s ark—his teva—the seed of life is saved. All the DNA floats on the endless water in a tiny boat. When God has compassion upon Noah, the waters recede, the division between the waters is put back in place, and the world regenerates. When the Children of Israel are in Egypt, again it is water that threatens to overwhelm everything that matters: The babies are being drowned in the Nile. And again, the key to the future, the possibility of redemption, is floating in a teva, a miniature of Noah’s ark, proportionally tiny and vulnerable in the Nile. The Hebrew word teva is used for only two things in the Bible: the basket that Moses’ sister places among the reeds, and Noah’s ark. In the Moses story, like in the story of Noah, the future is saved by a spark of love, this time the outpouring of compassion from Pharaoh’s daughter toward someone else’s baby.

The idea that creation requires the taming of chaotic waters is probably a remnant of the most ancient vision of the world—way before the Israelites, way before the Bible. But the theme runs through the Bible like this: Creation is tenuous, always in danger of being overwhelmed by the water out of which it was carved. A spark of compassion brings it to safety and makes the future possible.

And the opposite problem is even more pervasive in the Bible: the precariousness of life without enough water. The travels of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the land of Canaan are driven by the search for water. Everywhere there are stories of wells—digging them, stumbling upon them, fighting over them, sharing them, naming them. It is at wells that future wives are met. The wives of Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are all encountered while they are drawing water from the depths of the earth to water the livestock, to sustain life. What could be a more potent image of female fertility than a well—deep and wet, with the power to bring forth life? In these narratives, the search for posterity is merged with the search for water.

Then, after the family has turned into a nation and escaped Egypt, the drama of their desert wandering turns on the problem of finding water. The very first thing that happens after the Israelites come safely and miraculously across the sea is that they “grumble against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ ” (Exodus 15:24) The Israelites then proceed to spend 40 years learning to trust that there will be water, and simultaneously learning to trust God.

There is always water in Egypt. Repeatedly, the biblical characters end up in Egypt because of famine brought on by drought. Pharaoh’s power is that he can harness the Nile for irrigation. His technology and his slaves keep the agriculture constant. We learn in Deuteronomy that this is a crucial difference between Egypt and the Promised Land. What distinguishes the two is the source of their water: Does it come from above or below?

11:10 For the land that you are entering to inherit—it is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you would sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. 11 But the land that you are crossing into to inherit is a land of mountains and valleys. From the rains of the heavens it drinks water. 12 It is a land that YHVH your God seeks out. The eyes of YHVH your God are constantly upon it, from the year’s beginning until the end of the year.

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.

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.

Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches at Swarthmore College and at Mekom Torah, a Philadelphia-area Jewish community learning project. She edited and annotated In This Hour, a collection of early writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel.