When I was in Israel for my Junior Year abroad in 1974, I remember that on Erev Sukkot the headline on the Jerusalem Post read: “Sukkot Starts Tonight, Weatherman Predicts No Rain.” For those of us in the Northeast this year Sukkot started with a lot of rain continuing a very wet few months that caused severe flooding in many areas. In Israel, rain at this time of year would very unusual which is why the Mishnah says the following:
All the seven days [of the festival of Sukkot] a man must make the Sukkah his permanent abode and his house his temporary abode. If rain fell, when may one be permitted to leave it? When the porridge would become spoilt. They propounded a parable: to what can this be compared? To a slave who comes to fill the cup for his master, and he [the master] poured a pitcher over his face.(Mishnah Sukkot 2:9)
Rain during Sukkot is a sign of divine disfavor since God seems to be preventing people from fulfilling a mitzvah. And that is why we only pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret, after we have been able to fulfill the mitzvah of “dwelling” in the sukkah.
Water is a major preoccupation in human civilization and for good reasons. Although water covers over 70 percent of the surface of the earth, clean freshwater is a precious substance, comprising only 3 percent of the total. Without water, life could not exist and the need for and the control of freshwater has been a major matter throughout human history. Today, there is a growing crisis over the access to freshwater as climate change is causing seawater to rise while the rapid increase in world population means that there is a lower per capita amount of available drinking water. There has also been an increase in contaminated water from human effluents, industrial agriculture, power generation, and industrial use. Climate change is also causing changes in weather patterns, which result in extended droughts in some areas of the world while causing floods and the rise of seawater in other parts, which then results in the contamination of agricultural areas (especially river deltas) by seawater; this will help to create a minimum of 250 million climate refugees by 2050. Water will continue to be one of the most important human issues during this century and will also be one of the primary sources of international insecurity.
When we look at water in the Jewish tradition we can see how the vocabulary of biblical Hebrew reflects the ancient Israelites’ concern for water. There are at least ten words for rain in biblical Hebrew, eight words for cloud, and numerous terms for springs, wells, cisterns, and aqueducts. Because there were no major river systems in the eco-regions y of the Land of Israel (unlike the neighboring civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt), the Israelites were almost completely dependent on rain for drinking water. The Land needed just the right amount of rain at just the right times for the soil to be fertile enough to grow crops and raise herd animals. But the average rate of rainfall in Israel is extremely variable from region to region. This variability results from the fact that Israel is at the junction of several different ecological domains, each with different amounts of annual rainfall. Anywhere from 16 to 40 inches of rain per year to 4 to 16 inches per year and in the desert areas less than 4 inches of rain per year.
This variability was encoded in the Torah’s view of divine action or Providence (in Hebrew: Hashgahah). For example, in Deuteronomy 11:10–17, (which includes what would later become the beginning of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma), the Torah explains the differences between Egypt and the Land of Israel. In Egypt, the rivers provided unlimited water at all times, thus allowing for human independence from any kind of divine constraints. But the Land of Israel is different: it gets its rain from heaven and therefore is under divine scrutiny and control. If the Israelites fulfill their covenant with God, the rain will come in its proper amount. The timing of the rain is also critical to the fertility of the Land. The early rain, called in this passage “yoreh,” comes in October and November and is intermittent and allows the dry hard soil to soften, thus allowing plowing and planting and the later rain to be absorbed. Seventy percent of the rain in the Land of Israel falls between December and February. The final or “late rain” mentioned (Hebrew: malkosh) comes in April or early May and is critical for the final stages of the crops’ growth. Fertility of the land is assured and prosperity for the community is granted. If they do not fulfill the covenant, God will “shut up the skies so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce” and drought, sterility and poverty will plague the community. Ecology thus determined theology. The abundance or scarcity of rain is not a random natural occurrence dictated by changes in geography or climate, but a divine response to a human morality. Israel and the Land of Israel are bound together in one moral community under God’s direction.
In the ultimate redemption of the Messianic Age, as portrayed in the Prophets, water will never cease to flow in the Land of Israel and even those parts that are desert will become well watered. The variability of rain will no longer exist and Israel will contain a river (or rivers) as constant as the Nile. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet has a vision in which a great deep river will flow out of the restored Temple eastward down to the Dead Sea, which will become sweet. This river will be full of fish and the Judean desert will blossom with fruit trees and animal life. The redemption of the people and the redemption of the land are completely intertwined.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s great poem, The Rime of the Ancient Marineris a rich tale of a sailor who is cursed for the sin of killing an albatross, a crime of cruelty against a fellow creature. The line which is the title of this post is from a section describing what happens when the ship is becalmed in the Doldrums—a zone of the oceans that encircles the Earth just north of the equator. Within this zone the winds are calm and sometimes are completely absent. The Doldrums are infamous for entrapping sailing ships for days or even weeks without enough wind to power the sails. As a result, many ships run out of water and the sailors suffer immensely because drinking seawater can be more deadly than thirst. This quote shows the great paradox of water: it is a necessary source of life but only a small amount of it in the world is useable. The sea is full of water but it cannot be drunk. Water can be a source of both life and death, an important idea that is also found in the Bible. And like the ancient mariner, humanity has cruelly ignored the morality of its relationship with Creation. Water is our need, but water can also be our punishment. This week, when we pray on Shemini Atzeret for rain in the Land of Israel, in the right amount and at the right time, let us also pray that this be so for the whole world.