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Rain n' Prayin' Bechukotai

This past week, I began studying Masechet Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud. It is my first real foray into Talmud, and I have a rabbi who is teaching me how to study Talmud. The first page of the tractate deals with the question of when the phrase mashiv haruach umorid hagashem is inserted into the Amidah. The Mishnah calls this insertion “the powers of rain.” The Gemara asks why rain is associated with power. To show why, it brings in a text from Job. Job is questioning why he, and good people in general, suffer. God explains to Job that His workings are beyond Job’s comprehension - humans will never fully understand why bad things happen to good people. The Talmud quotes Job 5:10: “Who performs great deeds beyond comprehension and wonders beyond count, who gives rain upon the face of the land and sends water upon the face of the outskirts,” referencing God. The Talmud here is associating rain with the unknowable complexity and wonder of God’s doings. Then it quotes Isaiah 40:28: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The God of the world, Hashem, the Creator of the ends of the earth, does not weary or become tired; His wisdom is beyond comprehension.” The Rabbis are establishing a connection between rain, God’s doings which are beyond comprehension, and Creation. To bring the connection full circle between rain and power, the Rabbis quote Psalms 65:7 - “Who sets mountains with his strength, Who is girded with power.” So, rain is connected to deeds beyond comprehension, the idea of being beyond comprehension is connected with God’s creation of the world, and the creation of the world is associated with power, hence rain and power are connected. Then, though, the Gemara asks how it is known that the power of rain must be mentioned in prayer. It quotes Deuteronomy, which says, “ . . . to love Hashem your God and to serve Him with all your heart. And I will provide rainf for you in its proper time - the early and the late rains,” (11:13). The Gemara sees the duty to love God - the service of the heart - as being worship, or tefilah, hence the mention of the powers of rain in the Amidah. Lastly, before I give my own thoughts, I want to highlight a final quote. The Talmud says that there are “3 keys in the hand of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that are not entrusted to an agent. They are: the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of revival of the dead.” The Talmud justifies the key of rain with the quote “Hashme will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in its season.” It justifies childbirth with a line about God opening the barren Rachel’s womb. It justifies revival with a line promising that the people will recognize God’s rulership when He opens their graves.

My first question upon reading all of this was, we know scientifically that rain does not come from above, from the heavens. It only appears so, but we know that it is really a cycle. We also know, scientifically, how pregnancy works. Sperm must fertilize eggs. It’s all up to that. If that happens, pregnancy happens, if not, then not. So, how do these things actually come from God? The Talmud says that they are actually entirely in the hands of God Himself! To connect them all and synthesize them into a question: life is a cycle, and we understand scientifically how these natural cycles work. Where, then, does God come in? The water cycle, the life cycle, it’s all a matter of the way nature was created, no? This is where I go back to Job. Job does not understand the cycles of reward and punishment in the world. He feels that God is not just because he does not understand His ways. God shows Job the vastness of creation, shows him that it is not that God is not just, but simply that His ways are beyond comprehension. So it is with rain and with childbirth. Yes, we understand generally how these cycles work. However, nature, the creation of God, is so complex, there are so many factors at play, that we cannot fully understand it. Though we generally understand the water cycle, we can not know for certain when rain will fall, and how much. Though we know how pregnancy happens, we cannot know for certain whether a pregnancy will occur after sex. There are so many infinite natural processes at play - it is beyond comprehension. We know generally how life - in the form of pregnancy or life-giving rains - works. Really, though, it is all so complex that we are never sure. We know best practices to try to make these things happen - with regards to sex, and with regards to farming techniques, etc, but in the end, we do not fully know how these things work. They just do. This is where the idea that rains and life come from beyond, come from Heaven. The key to them is outside of our grasp, outside of our limited human understanding. They are the realm of Divine Providence, precisely because they are systems of nature which we can attempt to but never fully comprehend. We will never truly have the power to create life. That is reserved for the true Creator, the One in Heaven.

In this past week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, God lists punishments and rewards for following, or not, God’s chukim, His laws. Rabbi David Fohrman, who runs an awesome Torah website called Alef Beta, points out that the chukim referred to (the ones which will bring reward if followed and curse if not) seem to be the laws of shmita and yovel in the preceding parsha. These are laws which mandate letting the land lie fallow once every seven years. Bechukotai says that, if these laws aren’t followed, God will make the heavens like copper and earth like iron - that is, untillable, unfertile, unreceptive, un-life-giving. I have read and heard that shmita is actually practically good for agriculture. The land in the Levante needs to lie fallow every now and then to remain fertile. Also, good soil health promotes rainfall, as it facilitates the water cycle. So this portion presents a very clear, practical picture for reward and punishment with regards to rain. If you observe shmita, you will have rain, if not, you will have drought and famine. This however, does not jive with reality. This is what Job explores. He sees that he is a good man, who has followed God’s laws, and he is suffering greatly. Doesn’t Bechukotai make it clear that if you follow God’s laws you will be rewarded, if not you will be punished? But what is the answer in Job? The answer is that God’s ways in reward and punishment are beyond comprehension. Similarly, the water cycle is beyond our comprehension. In general, we understand how it works. In general, it is true that observing shmita will bring rain (again, scientifically). However, there are so many factors at play in nature that this is not always the case. God’s systems in nature are so complex and unknowable that sometimes rain comes when shmita isn’t observed and doesn’t come when it is. This is similar to the key of childbirth. In general, we know that if you want to have a baby you have sex. This is similar to the fact that we know that if you want to grow crops you plant seeds and you observe shmita. Still, whether or not pregnancy will occur (whether or not rain will fall or your crops will go) is out of our full understanding and control.

This is where prayer comes in. People pray for things that are out of their control. What is out of people’s control? Things that are beyond people’s comprehension. What is beyond people’s comprehension? God’s creative power, His life-giving abilities. The cycles of nature and of birth and of death. People pray for rain and for pregnancy because it is out of their control, it is beyond their understanding and in the hands of heaven. As I believe Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, why would I worship something I understand? So, people pray to God for these things which are beyond their understanding. They hope that God is receptive. They hope that the heavens are receptive to their prayers, that the ground is receptive to the rain, that the womb (egg) is receptive to the sperm. They hope that God opens up these things, makes them receptive. The curse, presented in Bechukotai, is that God will make them like iron and copper - non porous metals, not receptive.

After the rewards and punishments in Bechukotai, there is a treatment of the laws of people and property which is vowed to God voluntarily. This is explained to be a result of people who are in distress are highly desirous of something, and they promise God that they will dedicate something to Him and his Mishkan and Kohanim if God provides. Think of Hannah in the book of Samuel. She is barren and prays to God for a child, and promises to dedicate him to the service of Him (i.e. the Mishkan) if God provides a child. I think it’s fascinating that the Torah has this law of vows right after the section on rewards and punishments regarding shmita and following of commandments in general, with an emphasis on rain, which represents life-giving in general. When people are praying for rain or for pregnancy, they might make vows to dedicate property to God. Thus, the Torah treats this subject immediately after the section on shmita and rewards and punishments of rain for following the commandments.

As I see it, it is a two part process. On the one hand, we as humans must do our part in bringing about life. You can’t have a kid without conception. If you want to have rain, practice good farming techniques and take care of the water cycle. On the other hand, it is ultimately out of our hands whether or not life is given to us. It is in the hands of God. Therefore, we also have to pray for these things, which are out of our control. When we do, we are recognizing the Source of all life and appealing to that Source.

The haftarah is also interesting and relevant, in my opinion. It is from Jeremiah. It includes the phrase “Baruch hagever asher yivtach BaHashem” - blessed is the man who puts his trust in Hashem. It also criticizes as fools people who put their trust in “flesh” - i.e. mortal man. We say that line - baruch Hagever - in the bentsching after meals. We are recognizing there that, even though the process of growing food requires us to do the work - we need to work the land and make everything happen - ultimately it is in the hands of God, who created the natural systems which we rely on to grow this food and do not fully understand and control. If we put all our trust in man, and think that it is our own human genius which allows us to eat, we are being arrogant and overestimating our own mastership of the world. When we recognize that it is God who ultimately provides our food because he ultimately is the master of the systems which allow us to grow food, then we rely on God and have a better relationship with Him. The Haftarah, from Jeremiah, also says that somebody who trusts God is like a plant with deep roots. This plant, though rain does not always come, stays alive because it has its roots down deep in the water table. It does not need to always see explicit blessing to survive because it knows that the water is still there. This is trust. Trust in God are the roots which connect us to the Source of life, even when we are not being blessed with life from above. Just because there is no rain does not mean that water is not there, just because a pregnancy doesn’t happen once doesn’t mean the potential is not there, beneath the surface. This is where trust and tefilah comes in.

With regards to the key of the revival of the dead, I think of CPR. When we perform CPR on somebody, we hope that their bodies are receptive to our breath. I know that this is not what revival of the dead in the Jewish sense refers to. Still, the basic idea of a non-breathing body being re-endowed with the breath of life is present in both cases. Think of Elisha, who placed his body over a dead person in Kings II, seemingly performing CPR, and brings him back to life. We may generally know how this works, but there are so many factors at play that it is beyond our comprehension and ultimately in the hands of the Creator. You do what you can, but at some point, all that’s left to do is pray.

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