Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Rainfall has been sparse this summer in much of the northeast, and the reservoirs of New York City are some 24% lower than normal for this time of year. Our need for water highlights a somber motif of Sukkot often obscured by the overriding joyfulness of the festival. For though in our prayers we repeatedly refer to Sukkot as "the season of our joy," our mood is not one of undiluted joy.
The reason is that the Mishna envisions God at Sukkot to be still seated in judgment. What hangs in the balance at this moment is how much rain will fall in the coming winter. After the fate of each individual has been determined during the ten-day period from the Day of Remembrance (Rosh Hashana) to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), God now weighs the merits of the community as a whole. Does its collective record of decency over the past year warrant the blessing of abundant rain? Not only is the Mishna (2nd century) reflective of a Middle Eastern calendar where rainfall is restricted to the winter months, but also of the bedrock conviction that God (despite the misery that abounds) governs the natural world directly and justly.
And so Sukkot is more than a joyous thanksgiving festival at the end of an ample harvest. The mood of gratitude and celebration is accompanied by an undertone of anxiety. Will this year's rainfall be large enough to guarantee a repetition of last year's bounty? Over the eight-day holiday (in truth, Sh'mini Atzeret is not part of Sukkot), what begins inaudibly swells into a crescendo of supplications for rain on the final two days of Hoshana Raba and Sh'mini Atzeret.
However, the last thing that we want is that we should be doused by rain as we take our meals for seven days in the sukkah. Its shade offers little protection from inclement weather. The Mishna deems a Sukkot holiday ruined by rain as a sign of divine displeasure, on the order of a servant about to pour a glass of water for his master only to have the pitcher upended in his face by the master he is serving. We want the rains to come only after Sukkot, even though our celebration is punctuated and muted by fear of their non-recurrence. It may well be that Rabbi Eliezer was correct when he claimed in the Talmud that the basic symbolism of the four species that we wave in our synagogues on Sukkot (the palm branch, willow, myrtle and etrog) is a plea to God for rain. Just as these diverse flora did not flourish without water, neither can we. Dependence is part of the human condition, of which we are also reminded by the fragile nature of the sukkah itself. Our feelings of thanksgiving and anxiety, of uplift and unease, are united by the inescapable sense of how subordinate we humans actually are to God's will.
Rainfall in the Middle East is far less certain than in most parts of North America. Thus it should not surprise us to learn that the Mishna includes an entire tractate of four chapters stipulating what a Jewish community might do to hasten the end of a drought (among other things). Named Taanit or "Fasting," the tractate is remarkable for its sobriety. There are no magical techniques or incantations that could compel God to do our bidding. Communal fasting and public prayer are all we have. The Mishna prescribes a series of no more than 13 such fast days of escalating severity beginning about five weeks after Sukkot and extending, if necessary, into Nisan (the month of Pesach), but not beyond. After Nisan, the calamity of a drought is irreversible. Rebuked by God, we are not to rail against heaven or sink into despair, but quietly to accept our fate and curtail our activities. The religious framework remains intact.
There is an absence of excess in these prescriptions, a quest for balance in an unstable world. A similarly moderate disposition pervades a tale of religious heroics which seems, at first glance, to flout the restraint of which I speak. The gemara does record, albeit with evident reluctance, a good number of instances where the prayers of pietists (even one woman!) move God to send rain. The most famous of these rainmakers, if not their prototype, is Honi, the Drawer of Circles.
One year the winter brought no rain to Jerusalem. Toward the end of Adar, that is, well after Purim, the people summoned Honi to intercede for them. When his prayers elicited no sign of divine grace, Honi drew a circle and stepped inside. "Lord of the Universe," he said, "Your children have placed their trust in me, because I am like a member of Your family. Believe me, I will not leave this circle till You show some compassion." It began to drizzle. Whereupon the people said to Honi, "Seeing you, we will surely not die. But it does appear to us that this drizzle is sent merely to comply nominally with your oath."
Honi turned to God: "This is not what I sought. I asked for a rain that would fill pits, ditches and caves." This time it rained furiously till each drop bore a barrel of water. Again the people protested: "Seeing you, we will surely not die. But it does appear to us as if this rain is sent only to destroy the world." Again Honi addressed God: "This is not what I sought. I asked for a rain of good will and blessing, freely given."
Finally, it rained normally and steadily, until the people were obliged to take refuge on the Temple mount. And now they asked Honi to bring the rain to an end. Despite some reservations, Honi acceded to their urging with the following insight offered in prayer over a thanksgiving bullock, and the reason I bring the story: "Lord of the Universe, Your people Israel, which You took out of Egypt, can not endure too much of a good thing or too much punishment. If You are angry with them, they can not make it, if You are too generous with them, they can not make it. So may it be Your will to stop the rain and give the world a respite."
Once the rain had ended, the people went into the fields to find them already sprouting with mushrooms.
Honi's parting words are a nugget of wisdom in a folk fantasy. We function best, whether collectively or individually, in a setting without extremes. Too much at either end of the spectrum frays our fiber and weakens our resolve. Sukkot tempers our euphoria after a plentiful harvest with the prospect of a waterless winter. Like Honi, we pray on Sh'mini Atzeret for a rainfall that will be "For a blessing, not a curse. For life, not for death. For abundance, not for famine."
The space in between these opposites is never as large as we might think or would like, but it is there that we must find our contentment, if we are to endure and flourish.