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Shemini Atzeret: Praying for Rain

Shemini Atzeret: Praying for Rain

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This essay is dedicated to the memory of the four holy souls that were cut down by heinous acts of terror as they celebrated the festival of joy of 5776. These special heroes will celebrate the festival of Shemini Atzeret in the heavens together with Moses, King David and all the Jewish heroes of our past. As we celebrate, let us not forget those who lost their loved ones. May G‑d send comfort and consolation to the families of Rabbi and Mrs. Henkin, Rabbi Lavi and Aron Bennet

In memory of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin, Rabbi Nechemiah Lavi and Aron Bennet. May G‑d send a complete recovery to Adel Bat Miriam, and peace and security to the Jewish people wherever they may be.

Rain and Dew

According to our sages, there are many differences between rain and dew. Dew is constant, rain falls only when there is a condensation of water in the air. Dew has no season, rain has a season. And while rain interferes with wayfarers, dew makes everyone happy. In fact, the Talmud says that when we ask G‑d for rain, G‑d replies that He will give us even more than we ask for. He will give dew, which can be found year-round and makes everyone happy.1

Understanding the difference between rain and dew prompts us to ask why we pray for rain at the end of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret, and for dew on the first day of Passover. Granted, we pray for each in its proper time. We pray for rain in the beginning of the (Israeli) rainy season and for dew when the (Israeli) rain season is over. But this is only the practical angle. Surely there is a more substantive link between our prayers and the time that we offer them. Indeed, why did G‑d make the rainy season start at Sukkot and end at Passover?

The Spiritual Nature

The sporadic nature of rainfall represents the Divine attribute of Justice, which responds to us according to what we deserve. The mystical reason that rain is more plentiful at certain times is that the world goes through periods of being more and less deserving.2

Dew represents the Divine attributes of Kindness and Generosity, giving with no consideration of worthiness. From G‑d’s perspective the worthy and the unworthy are equally valued. Thus, He gives at all times to all people, deserving or not.

A Time for Each

At times G‑d assumes a posture of justice, and at times He assumes a only posture of kindness.

When the world is terribly undeserving, it can be approached only with kindness. He knows at such times that if He were to assume a stance of justice, He might need to destroy the world. So He doesn’t go there. He opts for kindness instead.

However, when the world is in a state of worthiness, G‑d assumes a posture of justice.3 At such times He knows that He can afford to be just because there is plenty of opportunity to provide justly. People will be eminently deserving, and thus G‑d will not need to deprive them. Even the guilty can be provided for, because if they don’t deserve in their own right, they can lean on the merit of the righteous.

The Cycle of the Year

We now understand why the end of Sukkot is the right time to pray for rain, and Passover is the right time to pray for dew. Historically, Passover was the time of our national infancy. At that time we were new to Judaism and had no merit of our own. We could not ask for anything on the basis of our worthiness, so we threw ourselves on G‑d’s mercy.

Sukkot, which comes after the Days of Awe, and specifically Yom Kippur, when all our sins were atoned, is a perfect time to pray for rain. At this time, when we are busy preparing for and celebrating the holidays, we are free of sin and carry lots of merit. And so, this is the right time to ask for rain, the blessing given on the basis of worthiness.

Of course the rain will fall sporadically throughout the year, even when we are not entirely worthy. But that is because we were wise enough to strike while the iron was hot and ask for it when we were full of merit.

The Cycle of the Season

We mentioned earlier that G‑d assumes postures of kindness or justice as necessary. Indeed, we see this in the cycle of seasons, which follow the needs of the people.

When the people are spiritually robust just after the High Holidays, the rainy season starts in Israel. As we explained, rain represents G‑d’s attribute of justice, when He gives only to those who are worthy. Since we are all worthy after Yom Kippur and can justly afford to ask for blessing, G‑d affixed the rain season in this time and instructed us to pray for rain.

Around the time of Passover, the time symbolic of spiritual infancy, six or seven months after Yom Kippur, G‑d assumes the posture of kindness, and this too reflected in the season. In Israel, Passover represents the end of the rain season. Accordingly, we stop praying for rain and ask instead for dew, the gift that is given freely.4

Footnotes
1.
Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 4a.
2.
The reason rain is scarcer in Israel than elsewhere, even though Israel is holier, is because the bar is higher. A sin committed in a holy place is a greater offense than a sin committed in a less holy place.
3.
He prefers justice at such times because it is ultimately more rewarding to earn our reward than we receive it our of the giver’s kindness. If He can give it justly, He prefers it.
4.
This essay is based on a 1920 treatise on Shemini Atzeret by Shem Mishmuel.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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