A thing I love is the sound of running water, not always or everywhere, not like our first night in our new house twenty years ago when our daughter woke us calling ‘Mummy, mummy, it’s raining in my bed,’ and we found a torrent from a leaked pipe streaming down the walls. But I love the sound of rainfall at the close of a summer day and the songs of small streams that calm the mind as if they flowed through the soul.
Therefore, I’m frightened by these droughts. As we say in the great annual prayer for rain, ‘Our life-spirit longs for water.’ The authors of the Bible knew the seasons and the soil; they understood the need for rain- and dew-fall in their proper times. They saw them as God’s reward, and the withholding of them as God’s punishment for our sins. The rabbis of the Mishnah (1st and 2nd centuries) instituted a series of up to thirteen fasts to petition God to pardon us and send us rain. That theology, too blunt, even unjust, in its raw form, nevertheless calls out to be revisited. What have we done to this earth, and what atonement, what reparation can we effect?
I woke in the middle of the night hoping to hear the beautiful sound of raindrops. Not one. I went down to my study to pray for rain. There’s a special blessing for the fertility of the land in every daily prayer, to which one adds the words ‘grant dew and rain’ from late autumn to early spring, stopping at Passover after which rainfall can be damaging to the crops. These prayers reflect the seasonal needs of Israel and Babylon, where most Jews lived after the wars with Rome.
But what about other parts of the world, Sefarad and Ashkenaz, Spain and Central Europe? What if rain is desperately needed there in the summer? Ask for it in shome’a tefilah when we bless for listening to our prayers, rules the Shulchan Aruch. Our custom, comments Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838 – 1933) is to recite verses about rainfall, and, on Sabbaths and Festivals, to chant the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy and relevant Psalms. Eastern Europe where he lived evidently suffered all too often the ravages of drought.
The Psalms are full of the love of water, for God ‘whose voice is upon the waters,’ who fashions ‘springs and deep pools,’ who ‘leads me the quiet waters by,’ and for whom we yearn ‘as the deer longs for streams of water.’
I received an emergency message before the burning heat of last Monday and Tuesday: ‘Humans can turn on taps, but what about the animals? Do what you can for them!’ So I duly went out at night with an easy-to-drink-from bowl and left it full of water beneath a tree on the Heath Extension with a sign: ‘For the animals, wild and pets: please leave – and refill if you can.’ Who knows what passers-by may have thought?
But it’s not true that people everywhere can simply turn on taps. Thirst is a cruel way to suffer. Access to clean water is the most basic of all necessities, so thank goodness for organisations like Water Aid.
Even in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ it’s not a given fact that we can always turn on the shower. We can do so only if there’s water in the pipes, if our reservoirs, lakes and rivers don’t run dry, and for that we’re dependent on the heavens.
That’s why the rabbis of the Talmud understood rainfall as one of three hidden treasures to which only God has the key: the mystery of birth, the secret of what happens after death, and ‘the mighty act of sending rain.’
May God bless this earth for all who live on it.