Sukkot: Singin’ for The Rain
This Dvar Torah was edited from one written by Rabbi Fredrick Klein, Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection to Spiritual Support and Executive Vice President of The Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.
Many years ago, I saw a fascinating documentary with a very simple title-- Water. The documentary had virtually no dialogue and through imagery, intended to highlight the precious resource, its unequal distribution, and how the entire trajectory and success of a civilization is determined by such a basic resource.
The most poignant segment featured the journey of the water carriers in Kenya. The women would raise up in early morning, beginning a laborious trek with massive jugs atop their heads. Three or four hours later they would arrive at the nearest well with potable water, where they would fill up the jugs, only to turn around and return to their home to provide for their family. This daily ritual, taking the balance of their waking hours, would be repeated day after day, year after year.
The documentary then juxtaposed this with an American family in a modern home. The spigot is turned, and water flows into a tub, as a child bathes. One adult is shaving with hot water, and another is in the kitchen preparing a cup of coffee.
What in one country is a daily struggle for existence is in another country a non-event. The documentary forces us to consider how our lives are shaped by this one resource. How much time will water carriers really devote to a career, education, or the accumulation of capital?
One factor - water - is determinative of so much in a person’s life!
Sukkot is a colorful festival. We go out into thatched huts and parade around the synagogue or our sukkah with floral bouquets. We step out of our houses and dwell in tents under the heavens. Whether you live in a mansion or a hovel, for a week in time we all celebrate under the same celestial roof….
What ties all these various celebrations and rituals of Sukkot together is a theme, that for many moderns, especially we who are living in the Tropics, barely think about - the blessings of rain. The holiday is punctuated by thanking God for the bountiful harvest just gathered in, while at the same time praying for rain for the coming months…. However, as we will see, rain is not just about water, but something more fundamental, a lesson critical to our generation of abundance in particular…
When God gives the Jewish people the land of Israel, its lack of water does not seem to be an oversight, but by design. Unlike Egypt, a country that lives and dies by the Nile, the land of Israel is completely dependent upon the heavens.
Moses describes the land of Israel as ‘a land of hills and valleys’ and ‘soaks up its water from the rains of heaven’. For this reason, Moses informs us that God keeps a proverbial eye on it, for if God does not, the land will wither (Deut. 11:9-11).
In layman’s terms, the land of Israel requires God’s active intervention to ensure water.
If this sounds familiar to the reader, it should be. During their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, the people were fed through the miraculous manna and dependent upon miraculous springs emerging from rocks. Water was not readily available there either, and on numerous occasions the people complain to Moses, regretting they left the fertile banks of the Nile in Egypt only to die from thirst in the wilderness.
In other words, in a very real way, the Land of Israel seems to be a continuation of the wilderness experience. Why would that be at all desirable?! Why would God do this?!
Whether we are in the forbidding wilderness of Sinai or the verdant Garden of Eden, we are meant to realize that ultimately, we depend upon the Divine vitality embodied in the symbol of life-giving rain. While we need to take human initiative by actively ‘tilling the soil’, we also need to be attuned to our relationship with God and pray for rain.
Prayer ultimately is to help us recognize that we stand in relationship to the Source of our life and blessing…
The Garden of Eden story in Bereisheet/ Genesis tells us that while humanity has great autonomy, that same autonomy has limits and that the ‘tree of knowledge’ and ‘tree of life’ were off limits. The reason is not as important as the notion that God gives humanity one command, and humanity violates that command.
In violating the one and only command they were given, human beings saw themselves as their own God, determining their own fate, seduced by the snake to ‘be like the gods in the knowledge of good and evil.’ In this act of rebellion, at least for a moment, Adam decides he does not really need to be in relationship to God, asserting himself at the expense of this relationship.
As the story in Genesis tells us, the results of this act of human defiance were catastrophic, introducing into the world-- curse, suffering, pain and most significantly death. Human beings will be born through the pain of childbirth, they will be required to bring forth bread through ‘the sweat of their brow’ and even then at times ‘thistles and thorns will grow’. Tilling the land now is a laborious process because the land itself unlike Eden does not readily give of its bounty; it is ‘cursed’. Most tragically, at the end this toilsome life, they will die and return to dust.
The Torah’s theological message is that when a person turns away from the Source of Life and decides to live life solely based upon their own devices, the result is a life of insecurity and ultimately death…
Our nature as a human being, an adam, arises from the earth - the Adamah, and we ultimately return there.
While we might tend to think we are distinct and apart from the world in which we live, truly autonomous, our fates and fortunes are tied to this earth.
When we understand this message, we realize rain is symbolic of so much more than we might think.
Rain represents not merely the chemical compound H20; it represents that which brings life in all its forms. During a harvest festival and at the beginning of a planting season in which water plays such an important role, it only makes sense to consider the larger philosophical notions of the implications of rain itself…
The Land of Israel, as we have seen, lends itself to this message. It is for this reason that God leads them to the land of Israel and not Egypt, to cultivate in their hearts the fundamental message that God is the source of life, and that we are to live our lives in relationship to the Source. Rain thematically embodies this idea.
The concept of rain as the source of blessing both individually and nationally is the fundamental theme of the Sukkot holiday. We celebrate the abundance of life we have been given in the form of this bountiful harvest, and it is a time of rejoicing.
For this reason, in ancient times Jews brought more sacrifices (by far) than any other holiday and today in synagogues, the festive Hallel prayer is sung every day. We make a point of rejoicing to mark the gratitude that we have. We are in effect “Singin’ in the Rain..."
There is one more prayer recited on Sukkot (shmini atzeret), the prayer for rain, which brings all these themes together. From this point until Passover, the second blessing in the daily silent prayer, Amidah, includes the words “[God] who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”. It is placed in the blessing called gevurah, praising God for brining life and even resurrecting the dead!9 The blessing also praises God for ‘lifting up those who have fallen, healing the sick, releasing the captive, and bringing life to those sleeping in the dust.”
All of these are images of God granting of life and vitality in all its forms, and thus it is only natural that the praise for rain is included in this blessing. Rain is that which brings something that was previously dormant to life, and therefore is befitting the blessing that discusses bringing forth new life…
To return to the documentary, perhaps we should consider that we are indeed fortunate, and at least in South Florida live with an abundance of water and rain, and realize that is only the beginning of our blessings.
When we step out into the sukkah and a few drops of water fall, let’s recommit to recognizing our abundance, and act in our lives in such a way that we are deserving of blessing. Don’t leave your sukkah when you feel a drop of water, but use this experience to write our own inner musical. Perhaps entitle it Singin’ For the Rain.
May you be blessed with an abundance of rain this year, in all its forms.