The land of Israel is more pronouncedly dependent upon rainwater for its irrigation and water supply needs than many other countries (see Deuternomy 11:10-12.) There are virtually no bodies of fresh water within Israel’s boundaries and the rainy as opposed to dry seasons are very distinct, with it practically not raining at all during the spring and summer months, leaving the fall and winter months as the period of time when it must rain abundantly in order for there to be a year of even moderate agricultural success.
Jewish primary sources associate rain or the lack thereof with the spiritual level of the Jewish people in general, and the residents of Israel in particular. Mishna Rosh HaShana (1:2) states that Divine Judgments and Decisions are made during the festival of Tabernacles regarding the rainfall that will take place during the ensuing year. The beginning of the rainy season is marked by a special supplicatory prayer (Tefillat Geshem) at the conclusion of the festival of Tabernacles, with the end of the season accompanied by a prayer for dew, to the exclusion of rain, recited on Passover. During the rainy season, an insertion is made in the weekday silent devotion (“VeTein Tal U’Matar LeVeracha;” lit. “and Bestow dew and rain for a blessing,”) repeatedly requesting God to Assure that an adequate amount of rain will fall.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate presently calling for communal fasting in light of the paucity of rain to date in the land of Israel is in accordance with Mishna Ta’anit (1:5) which states that if it has not significantly rained by the beginning of the month of Kislev (which began this year on November 8, 2010, forty days after the conclusion of the festival of Tabernacles), it is cause for serious concern, and day-time fasts are to be decreed by the religious authorities of the community. Naturally it is understood that fasting is only a means to an end, i.e., when one concentrates less on his material needs, he can more easily turn his thoughts and prayers to spiritual matters. It is assumed that the introspection and soul-searching accompanying a fast will galvanize the population’s spiritual energy to the point where the Jewish people’s prayers will be affirmatively answered and the long-anticipated and much-needed rain will finally fall.
Having recently returned from Israel, I am pleased to report that our prayers have been answered.Mt.Hermon was covered in 30 cm of snow and most of Israel received a significant amount of rainfall.The aquifers are being renewed and LakeKinneret has risen by 3 cm thus averted the impending ecological disaster.
Jews praying for rain in times of drought is not a new phenomenon.It dates back to the early rabbinic period some two millennia ago. The Mishnah Ta’anit is preoccupied with just this procedure.Prayer and fasting and the blowing of the shofar are all included the rituals to combat drought.
The underlying religious doctrine, however, is more complicated.The Torah (Deuteronomy 11) teaches that the withholding of rain is a direct result of national infidelity.In other words, drought is a consequence of sin.Hence, the remedy for drought is not prayer but repentance.Presumably, the rituals mentioned in the Mishnah are predicated on adequate repentance.However, if, as our tradition teaches, the sum total of annual rainfall is predetermined by God at Sukkot, then no subsequent prayers or procedures should be able to change that fact.Otherwise, a significant theological challenge would result.If God’s decision on rainfall can be changed by prayer it suggests that God did not anticipate the possibility that prayers would be offered and accepted, thus calling into question His omniscience.Fortunately, our tradition has chosen to set aside this headache in favour of a favourable practical outcome.
The Israeli rabbis acted in accordance with an ancient practice mentioned in the Mishnah, the authoritative codification of Jewish law that was edited around the year 200 C.E. The text, found in the Mishnah’s tractate Ta`anit 1:5 (the word ta`anit literally means “a fast”), specifies that if the seasonal rains do not come to the land of Israel by the first of the month of Kislev, “the beit din (the rabbinical court) decrees three public fasts.” These fasts are from sunup to sundown. More severe fasts are decreed in the event the drought continues beyond this point. November 18 was 11 Kislev on the Jewish calendar.
The “religious doctrine” behind this practice, of course, is that droughts can be seen as divine punishment for the sins of the community. This fast, like the more severe fasts on Tisha B`av and Yom Kippur, are aimed at atoning for those sins so that God will send the desperately needed rain. Many of us, for good reason, no longer accept this doctrine in its literal form. We do not accept the idea that the natural universe works in accordance with human morality. Simply put: droughts, earthquakes, and volcanoes happen because they happen and not because we cause them by our evil behavior. On the other hand, there can be great moral and symbolic value in using natural calamities as moments to spur reflection and introspection. Besides, given what we’re learning about climate change, who is to say that our actions on this earth don’t contribute in some significant way to drought? Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to use the absence of rainfall – which ought to occur by this time of the year in Israel – as an opportunity to consider the effects of human activity upon the natural environment in general and upon climate in particular.
It could just be, in other words, that the Rabbis were on to something.
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