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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Singing in the Rain — Mishnah Ta’anit 1:1 — #12

When do we begin to mention the power of rain? R. Eliezer says: From the first day of the Festival [of Sukkot]. R. Yehoshua says: On the last day of the Festival. R. Yehoshua said to [R. Eliezer]: Inasmuch as rain on the Festival is a sign of a curse during the Festival, why mention it [before the last day]? R. Eliezer said to [R. Yehoshua]:  I did not say to request it but rather to make mention of “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall in its due season.” [R. Yehoshua] said to [R. Eliezer]: If that is so, one should always mention it…

INTRODUCTION
Unlike Egypt, where the Nile reliably overflows its banks each year, insuring fertile fields for planting, a robust harvest in the Land of Israel depends entirely upon rain and dew. In Eretz Yisrael, rain or lack thereof determines whether crops grow and accordingly whether people and animals thrive, or whether drought occurs and famine ensues. 

The Amidah, sometimes called Ha-Tefilah (“The Prayer”) or Shemoneh-Esrei (“The Eighteen Benedictions”), constitutes the central prayer of the service. There are two seasonal additions to the Amidah that concern rainfall. First, in Gevurot, the second blessing, whose theme is resurrection, the words “Who causes the winds to blow and the rain to fall” are added from the last day of Sukkot until the first day of Pesach. Second, in the ninth blessing, birkat ha-shanim (“Who blesses the years”), a petition for rain is added: ten tal u-matar (“provide dew and rain”) from early December through Pesach. Both insertions are added during the rainy season in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).

COMMENTARY
The question under consideration concerns when we should add mention of the power of rain, which means God’s power to bring (or withhold) rain. Both R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua agree that it should begin during the festival of Sukkot, but they differ concerning whether “Who cause the winds to blow and the rain to fall” should be added from the first day onward, or beginning only on the final day of the festival.

What’s at stake? Several things. R. Yehoshua, who says we add the prayer for rain on the last day of the festival, points out that if rain were to fall during Sukkot, it would ruin the festival for everyone. One cannot fulfill the mitzvah of living in the sukkah—eating, sleeping, studying, playing, and socializing—while it rains. Therefore, if it rain falls during Sukkot, R. Yehoshua reasons, it means God is displeased with us (“a sign of a curse”). Why invite something you don’t want?

R. Eliezer, who suggests initiating the prayers on the first day of the festival, doesn’t disagree. Rather, he says that the first addition that R. Yehoshua interprets as a request for rain is rather a theological statement that God holds the power over rain. R. Eliezer holds that the second addition to the ninth blessing (“provide dew and rain”) is the actual petition for prayer.

R. Yehoshua points out R. Eliezer’s inconsistency: If “Who cause the winds to blow…” is merely a theological statement and not a request, it should always be included in the Amidah, yet R. Eliezer agreed that it should be added to the prayers seasonally—corresponding to the rainy season—suggesting that, in reality, it is a request. That being the case, it makes much more sense to add it at the end of Sukkot, the time we genuinely wish for rain to fall.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS 

  1. R. Yehoshua says that if rain falls during Sukkot, it is an unpropitious sign. Rashi is troubled by the terminology, “sign of a curse.” He understands it to mean a divine rebuke. Perhaps he has in mind mishnah Sukkot 2:9, which says that rain during Sukkot is a rebuke from God. In Sukkah 28b, Gemara provides an allegory: “To what may the matter be compared? To a servant who pours a cup for his master, and then the master pours a pitcher in his face.” How do you understand the events of nature? Do you believe that God is pulling the strings? If not, how do you conceive God and God’s relationship with the physical universe?
  2. Rain is a life-and-death matter, and whoever controls the rain determines whether people live or die. Perhaps this explains why a prayer for rain is added to the blessing concerning resurrection. But rain does not bring things back to life — it restores plants to the appearance of life after they have appeared dead to our eyes, but were never truly dead. Could this help us understand resurrection as a metaphor for people whose lives seemed or felt to be over—people who descended in despair and hopelessness, or serious life-threatening illness—yet recovered? Mention of resurrection has been removed from some Jewish prayer books because its literal meaning is incompatible with many people’s beliefs. If we view liturgy as poetry, and remind ourselves that poetry speaks in metaphors, might we “resurrect” the blessing concerning resurrection?
  3. Gemara quotes a baraita (Mishnaic era teaching that is not found in the Mishnah itself) in which R. Eliezer says that one may say, “Who causes the wind to blow…” throughout the year because it is understood that one prays only for rainfall in the appropriate season. This raises several questions: How specific do communal prayers need to be? Phrased another way: How much lee-way is there for the individual to interpret the words for him or herself? And even more: Could we ever have a set of communally recited prayers lacking “wiggle room” for people to bring their own understandings, interpretations, beliefs, and hopes to the process of prayer?

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