Yom Kippur has passed and the hints of a winter chill envelop us with every step. The weather now garners increased attention as we are about to eat our meals in the sukkah. Any forecast of rain casts a pall upon our holiday plans. Yet, rain is a commodity that we will soon pray for and welcome as a gift and sign of Divine grace, especially for our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael.
A book entitled “Waiting for Rain” by Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy, published by the prestigious Jewish Publication Society, is a series of elegantly written essays and shiurim about the Tishrei festivals, all focused on the coming rainy season. What follows is a brief summery of some of the most salient points found in the book.
The book’s essays are based on a series of Hoshana Rabbah shiurim given by Levy at the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem. According to Levy, among the influences that informed her thinking were her mentors Dr. Nechama Leibowitz of blessed memory and Rabbanit Malke Bina, the founder and guiding spirit of Matan.
Levy describes in detail Matan’s work as a yeshiva gavohah for women, affording them the opportunity to engage in Torah study at every level, thus helping women approach our faith’s beliefs with both an emotional and intellectual understanding of Judaism’s basic texts.
“Waiting for Rain” holds true to its title, as each essay fleshes out the themes of the Tishrei holidays through stories and guided readings.
Focusing on the shiurim dealing with Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret, I will highlight several themes worthy of your attention. Particularly relevant are the prayers for geshem (rain) as a response to our acts of teshuvah.
Prayer is a key element in our faith, involving our law codes more than any other ritual activity. Levy notes this sharply by citing the famous Rav Zadok haCohen of Lublin who taught that it was Abraham who offered the first petitionary prayer in the Bible. Based on Bereishit Rabbah, Rav Zadok contrasts Abraham’s prayer offered for the people of Sodom who were about to be destroyed for their sins, to the behavior of Noah, who stood silently when G-d informed him of His plans for the flood.
This, by extension, was to be linked to the rescue of Lot and his family from the fate of his fellow Sodomites, as the Midrash stated that prayer was to be a basic signature of King David’s legacy and that David was descended from Lot, whose life was saved by prayer. Noah, in contrast, has no progeny extant to preserve his legacy as Abraham does.
Levy demonstrates in great detail how the legacy of prayer is a crucial element in human expression, linking man to G-d and to ancestors of previous generations. Each chapter of the book is an extension of this theme.
The prayer for rain is discussed by the sages in great halachic detail. The land of Israel was not nourished by great rivers such as the Nile; rather, our holy land had to depend upon seasonal rains to nourish the crops. Lack of rain was seen as a Divine punishment for sin, and Jewish law and ritual provided for many remedies involving prayer to bring forth the desired positive results, namely rain in its proper time.
Levy cites the unusual experience of Rav, the first and greatest of the amora’im, who called for a fast in the wake of a drought. Nothing happened until a simple man came forward and intoned the prayer of “mashiv haru’ach u’morid hageshem,” (He makes the wind blow, He makes the rain fall) and it rained.
evy relates that upon further inquiry, Rav discovered that this man was a melamed, a simple school teacher. The man described his work to Rav, focusing on his devotion to his students, especially his equal treatment of the poor as well as those from more affluent homes. In addition, Rav learned that this teacher was skilled in assisting those students who were particularly slow in their studies, even those who were “socially incorrigible.” Rav attributed the success of this teacher’s prayers for rain to his manner of teaching. As a teacher, I can relate to this story.
Another ritual of the Sukkot observance in the days of the Temple was the water libations, the simchat beit ha- sho’eiva. The origins of this ritual have baffled scholars for many years. Many opinions abound as to its purpose as well as to its origins. Levy deals with this unusual ritual by citing sources from the Talmud in Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah related to the request for rain.
One source is a little known sugya in Yerushalmi (Shevi’it, 33b) where Rav Abba bar Zavdi claims that the custom originated from the early prophets, who Levy says was Samuel at Mizpah, where a water ritual was performed linked to a prayer for rain and also for salvation. Levy elaborates on the incident and I leave it up to the reader to evaluate it and reach your own conclusion.
The situation alluded to above involved idol worship that had to be remedied with teshuvah. That is Rashi’s interpretation in the Book of Samuel (7:6), regarding the use of water when facing mortality on the battlefield.
Apparently, the use of water as a tool of worship was to reflect upon the fragility of life, whether it be in terms of climate, draught or warfare. Water as a form of worship was not to survive the destruction of the Temple. The true observance of the water libations will have to wait until the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple.
In concluding this segment, Levy offers a contemporary perspective, by relating the situation of the Jews during the time of Samuel to our experiences today.
“Perhaps, we can now appreciate the contemporary relevance of Hoshana Rabbah. Three thousand years after Mizpah, as the reconstituted people of Israel in the commonwealth of Israel reborn, we find ourselves struggling for survival, surrounded by a sea of enemies. Our fate still hangs in the balance. And so we approach Hoshana Rabbah as an opportunity for meaningful religious reflection and fervently pray for redemption: ‘He who answered Samuel at Mizpeh — Answer us’!”
Originally published in 2008.