Thoughts on Shemini Asseret 2020
The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:2) teaches: “On the Festival [of Sukkot] the world is judged for water.” The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16a) elaborates, “Why does the Torah tell us to pour water on the Festival [of Sukkot]? God said: ‘Pour water before Me on the Festival, so that you be blessed with good rainfall during the year’.” And the Rabbis (Ta’anit 2b) likewise suggested that a primary function of the araba’at ha-minim is to appease God for water, demonstrating that “just as these four species cannot exist without water, so too, the world cannot exist without water.” Sukkot, then, is an appropriate time to reflect upon the significance of rain and water to the life of a Jew.
Unsurprisingly, the first mention of rain in the Torah follows Creation:
On the day God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till (la’avod) the soil. (Bereshit 2:5)
Rashi explained that God hadn’t yet caused rain because without a living human there was “no one to recognize the utility of rain.” He explained that the job (avodah) of human beings is to realize the vitality of rain and pray for its downfall. Reading the next pasuk, however, raises a difficulty:
And the wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil. (Bereshit 2:6)
If the “wetness” watered the surface of the soil, why didn’t it remove humans from this process, filling the role of sprouting the fields? Why didn’t God allow for the wetness itself to grow the trees and plants?
The Gaon of Vilna clarified the difference between that mist which rose and the fall of rain by paralleling them to the divided “upper waters” and “lower waters,” which came into being on the second day of creation. He explained that the wetness which wells from the earth comes from the natural “lower waters,” as opposed to the rain, which is produced from the divine realm of the “upper waters.” The Gaon explained that human beings are tasked with transcending the limits of our lower realm to forge a unity between the “upper” and “lower” dimensions of existence. We must seek out and find God in this world, and our prayer for rain completes this mission. It emerges, then, that although the rising mist could indeed cause growth in a natural fashion, we are to opt instead for an ideal world wherein we pray to God for the merging of heaven and earth through the showers of rain.
The choice is yours. You can, on the one hand, choose a life of relative ease, collecting from the “lower waters” and bypassing the difficulty of establishing a connection with God. You might in fact achieve financial success in your life’s endeavors and then safely turn inward to focus on your continued stability. By avoiding the challenge, however, you’ll lose out on the potential for a relationship. Learning from the lesson of rain, we know that developing a bond with God is no easy feat. It’s inspired by a genuine search – a “prayer for rain” – which necessarily accepts our own insufficiencies. But it’s worth it.
Consider, in this context, HaRambam’s opinion that the arba’at ha-minim represent the natural growth of the land of Israel, which then focuses us on its agricultural successes. At the end of his life, Moshe compared the land of Israel to that of Egypt. He warned the Nation of the difficulties that lay up ahead:
For the land into which you are coming to take hold of it is not like the land of Egypt from which you went out, where you sow your seed and water it with your foot like a garden of greens. But the land into which you are crossing to take hold of it is a land of mountains and valleys. (Devarim 11:10-11)
He then explained the positive side of those hardships:
From the rain of the heavens you will drink water – a land that God seeks out perpetually, the eyes of God are upon it from the year’s beginning to the year’s end. (Devarim 11:12)
Put in other words, Egypt was agriculturally sustained by the “lower waters” of an overflowing river and an elaborate irrigation system. Its society was built upon the stable foundations of self-sufficiency and predictability. The mountainous land of Israel, in contrast, was dependent upon the “upper waters” of heavenly rainfall. As Robert Alter noted: “The geographical fact, then, that the land of Israel is dependent on rainfall…is both a blessing and a curse.” The fear of drought and challenge of helplessness inspire us to prayer for the “upper waters” of rain. They are the catalysts for a relationship with God.
Raising the arba’at ha-minim in our hands on each of the seven days of Sukkot, we are forced to reconsider our relationship with God. The four species remind us of the difficult yet worthwhile challenge of seeking the “upper waters” of Israel. And just as we conclude that first holiday, we enter the next with the courage to step forward and demand more from our relationship with God. We begin Shemini Asseret with the prayer for rain.