Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Prayer for Rain – Unifying the Physical and Spiritual Realm

Student trip to Kevrei Tzaddikim (Kinneret in background)
Mar Cheshvan” which this month sometimes is called – in addition to meaning “bitter,” the prefix also means “a drop of water,” because during Cheshvan we begin to pray for rain in Israel. In the dark, grey European country where I grew up, nobody needed to pray for rain. We prayed for a sunny day to sit outside on the porch and soak up some vitamin D. I love the intensive sun and the blue skies of Israel. Even during the hottest month of Av (August), I never miss the cool summers of Denmark. Rain is quite bothersome, it makes our shoes muddy, and noses run. So why do we need to pray for rain?

From the mussaf prayer of Shemini Atzeret we begin to praise Hashem for rain,[1] but we only start actively praying for rain in Israel on the seventh of Cheshvan,[2] recognizing that rain is inconvenient for travelers who may still be returning from their pilgrimage to the Temple during the festival of Sukkot. In the Diaspora you don’t begin this prayer until the 4th/5th December, I don’t know why this particular date, if any of you do please let us know.

In our convenient westernized society, we don’t always associate running water for hand-washing, toilet, bathtub, dish-washing, cooking, laundry etc. with the need for rain. We just turn on our faucet and water flows in abundance whenever we need it. Living in Israel and especially in a Yishuv (settlement) you don’t have to be religious to learn to appreciate the rain. The occasional water stoppage and the tall water bills teach you to pray for rain!

Read on about the connection between rain and the sense of smell, my personal experience of our dependence on Hashem’s life-giving rain, how the plants pray for rain as well, Rebbe Nachman’s explanation of how our prayer is the aspect of cleaving and surrendering – disintegrating – to the Infinite and more…

Help There is no Water! 
I remember a couple of years ago, it was Friday afternoon and three students and myself were cooking in my kitchen for the Friday night dinner for 15-20 students in my home. All of a sudden there was no water from the faucet. We received a message from the office of the Yishuv that the water pipe had broken, and they were working on it. I asked myself: “Now what do we do?” There were only a few hours to Shabbat so how could we wash the veggies, cook them, do the dishes, and wash the floors? Not even talking about taking a shower. I don’t remember exactly how we managed, but the water returned only about one hour before Shabbat. It was very stressful, but somehow we managed to get everything done and serve a wonderful Shabbat dinner. This experience and others like it really taught me to appreciate the blessing of water, and be careful not to waste it. I learned how dependent we are on Hashem’s blessing of rain, and began to understand the importance to pray for rain.

The Purpose of Rain – Arousal to Prayer
In the Garden of Eden the serpent was cursed with having to “eat dust all the days of its life.”[3] We may ask, why is this a curse? Isn’t it convenient to always have one’s sustenance available at any given time and place? The well-known answer is “no!” It is a blessing to feel our dependence on Hashem constantly. Through our need to sustain ourselves, we learn to turn to Heaven for our blessings of sustenance. Pharaoh is compared to the serpent,[4] because the Nile kept Egypt watered, and he wouldn’t have to pray for rain. In this way he shared the curse of the serpent lacking an intimate relationship with Hashem. Actually the Torah tells us that rain was created only after the creation of man and woman, because the purpose of the rain in the world is to arouse us human beings to prayer.

Praying for Rain together with the Plants
וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָרֶץ וְאָדָם אַיִן לַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה
“No plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the Hashem, G*d had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not person to till the ground.”[5]

Rashi explains that the reason why G*d had not yet caused it to rain is because “There was no person to work the ground,” and there was therefore no one to recognize the utility of rain. When Adam came, however, and he realized that it was necessary for the world, he prayed for it and it fell, so that the trees and verdure sprang forth.[6] Siftei Chachamim explains that surely G*d desires the prayers of the righteous and He knows that humans recognize the goodness of the rain and will pray for it. Actually, the Hebrew word for “work” or “till” used in our Torah verse is לַעֲבֹד/la’avod, which can also mean serve or worship. Using this same word, the Torah implores us to serve (וּלְעָבְדוֹ/ul’avdo) Hashem with all our hearts.[7] The Talmud asks, “What kind of work (עֲבוֹדָה/avodah) is in the heart? This is prayer! Therefore it states in the following Torah verse ‘I will give rain to your land in its time…’”[8] The Torah verse above also hints to the fact that the plant also pray for rain. For this reason the Torah verse chose from the many more common words for plant to use specifically the unusual word: שִׂיחַ/siach, from the language of “to meditate in the field”[9] which our Sages have learned out to refer to prayer.[10] So when we pray for rain, we and the plants pray together!

Rebbe Nachman’s Return to the Root within Infinity
Rabbi Nachman explains that just as plants only grow after the seed has disintegrated into the earth and become void and null, likewise our prayer is the aspect of cleaving and surrendering – disintegrating – to the Infinite, for the rain does not come down except by means of our prayers. Therefore, it is impossible that trees, vegetables or herbs should sprout forth and grow except through prayer and disintegration, since the main ability for growth is by means of nullification to the Infinite…This is why rain only comes to the world as a result of our prayer. The main purpose of creation was that the entire universe returns to become included in the Infinite and main purpose of all creatures in the world is to return to their original root. G-d created the entire creation from nothing for the sake of Israel, the holy nation, in order that Israel's worship and cleaving to Him would elevate and return all creation to their original root within the Infinite… By heartfelt prayer, we break our lower cravings and merit nullification. This causes the plants to grow and draws sustenance down to the world. This is the meaning of "And no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet grown: for Hashem G-d had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.” By means of this we see at all times the wonders of the Creator who does wonders at every moment. From one tiny seed grow several sheaves."[11]

Becoming Energized through the Heavenly Scent of Rain
The sense of the month of Cheshvan is “smell.”[12] The first rain brings out the scent of the earth, trees, scrubs, flowers and herbs. Walking outside in nature after the rain, energizes both your body and soul in the most wondrous way. You feel the energy has raised through the fragrance of the subtle imprint of Hashem’s benevolent presence. In Hebrew rain is called גֶשֶׁם /geshem which is related to the Hebrew word for the physical and material: גָֹשְמִיוּת. Even the word we use in our prayer for rain:מָּטָר /matar consist of the same letters as the Latin root of the word materialism: “mater.” Nothing can exist in the physical world without the life-giving rain. Without rain we would not be able to find neither potatoes nor carrot on the marked, and we would not be able to sustain our lives in this physical world with no water flowing from our faucet.

The Fragrance of Rain Unifying the Physical and the Spiritual Realm
Through prayer for rain we unify the physical with the spiritual. This is the purpose of our existence in this world. Sefat Emet explains that fragrance rises specifically from the special joining of the spiritual and the physical. This is why a heavenly scent exuded from Ya’acov when his spiritual essence was wrapped in the exterior appearance of Esav.[13] This also explains why we smell fragrant spices on Motzei Shabbat. When we emerge from the total spiritual realm of Shabbat to begin the mundane week in the physical realm, we need to connect it with the spirituality of Shabbat. There is no better way to bring the spiritual blessing of Shabbat into the week than by engaging our sense of smell with fragrant spices. For the same reason “Every command that came out of G-d's mouth filled the whole world with fragrance.”[14] When the spiritual Torah from Heaven was brought down in the physical form of the tablets, then the world was infused with the sweetest fragrance. Rain and Torah are thus connected in unifying the spiritual with the physical. This connection is alluded to in the Hebrew word for the first rain: יוֹרֶה /yoreh from the same root as תּוֹרָה/Torah, because our need for the first rain teaches us to pray and connect the physical realm with our spiritual prayer.

May we all merit to return to our root, and connect to Hashem through heartfelt prayer for rain, and May we be showered with Hashem’s abundance!

[1] We then insert in the second blessing – the prayer for the revival of the dead, מַשִׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּשֶׁם/ashiv haruach umorid hagashem – “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”
[2] We then insert in the seventh blessing – the prayer for the produceוְתֵן טַל וּמָטָר לִבְרָכָה /Vetein tal umatar livracha” – “And grant dew and rain as a blessing.”
[3] Bereishit 3:14.
[4] Yechezkiel 29:3.
[5] Bereishit 2:5.
[6] Rashi, Bereishit 2:5.
[7] Devarim 11:13.
[8] Devarim 11:14, Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a.
[9] Bereishit 24:63.
[10] Rabbeinu Bachaya, Bereishit 2:5.
[11] Based on Rebbi Nachman, Likutei Halachot, Yore Deah, Halchot Kilei Hailan 1.
[12] Sefer Yetzirah 5:9.
[13] Bereishit 27:27; Sfat Emet, Shemot, for Purim 5644.
[14] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88b.

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