D‘var Torah: Noah
On Tuesday, I led a group grief counseling session with a business that had lost an employee to a work-related accident. The shock and grief of a sudden loss through death reminds us of our own mortality and its inevitability. Here is this week’s d‘var Torah.
Seizing the Rains
What was the sin of those who built the city and tower of Babel? According to one Talmudic opinion (Sanhedrin 109a), the builders wished to reach the heavens and strike the sky with pickaxes so as to make the rain flow. The Babel builders, traumatized by the flood stories their grandparents told them, wanted to prevent any unexpected meteorological disasters. They wished to place the rain on an automated timer that only they could control. But the One Who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall destroyed their giant sprinkler system and scattered them to the four winds, seizing back the rains.
It is difficult for us, who live in a world of Siri and satellites and self-cleaning ovens, to accept that our lives are not entirely in our control. We think that our technological prowess has rendered God obsolete. Not so, Parshat Noah reminds us, with its forty days and forty nights of uninterrupted flooding. Rain is emblematic of the part of our lives that is in God’s hands. As such, it is a central locus of prayer. According to the Talmud (Yoma 52b), the only prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur—a prayer that had to be recited quickly, so as not to frighten the people waiting anxiously outside—was about rain. In the holiest place at the holiest time, the emissary of the people to the Holy One devoted his few precious seconds of prayer to the matter of precipitation.
We pray for rain because we cannot control it – we accept that it is out of our hands. The Talmud (Taanit 2a) teaches that there are three keys that God does not entrust to any messenger – one of them is the key to rainfall, which nurtures the seeds we plant beneath the soil. (The others are conception, in which God nurtures the seed of new life,
and the revival of the dead, which restores the life buried beneath the soil.) God does not entrust the key
to rainfall to anyone, an indication of the significance of rain in biblical theology.
Throughout the Torah, the relationship between God and humanity—and the relationship between God and Israel in particular—is mediated through rain. In the book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites that if they obey God’s commandments, then God will grant rain in its time; but if they serve other gods, “the Lord’s anger will flare up against you and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain” (11:12). This verse is part of the second paragraph of the Shema, recited twice daily as an affirmation of our faith in God. Similarly, in the long list of blessings and curses at the end of Leviticus and repeated again in Deuteronomy, God begins by promising that if the Israelites follow the commandments, then God will open the storehouses of the heavens to bring rain; and if not, God will “make your skies like iron” (Leviticus 26:19), incapable of precipitation. The Torah contrasts the land of Israel with Egypt – unlike Egypt, which is watered by the Nile, the land of Israel “soaks up its water from the rain of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after” (Deuteronomy 11:11-12). The people of Israel and the land of Israel need rain in order to survive, and it is God who unlocks the floodgates.
The Talmud teaches that “a day of rain is as great as the creation of the world” (Taanit 7b), perhaps because the world’s creation can be sustained or undone by means of rain. Rain allows life to happen. The modern Hebrew word used for “to actualize” or “to make real” is l’hagshim, which comes from the same root as geshem, rain. The Babel builders wanted to actualize the rain by coming within striking distance of heaven. But the Shema and indeed the entire Siddur teach us otherwise: If we wish to bestir the heavens, we must do so with words rather than weapons, and with prayers rather than pickaxes. If, as we read in Deuteronomy (32:2), God’s teachings fall down like the rain, then our prayers rise up to heaven like evaporating mist, completing a theological water cycle. It is not we but our prayers that have the power to pierce the heavens, opening the divine storehouses and showering the earth in blessing.