March 15, 2023
Rain, water, life. The Hebrew root ג-ש-ם (gimel-shin-mem) reveals the interconnection between these three words. Geshem means rain and gashmiut means physicality. Perhaps the Hebrew is hinting at the fact that we and the created world are made of mostly water. As Rabbi Jacob Fine poignantly states, “Without geshem (rain), there is no gashmiut (physicality). Or in other words, without mayim (water), there is no chaim (life).”
Water is the beginning of our creation story. We are absolutely dependent on water. Without it, life as we know it would cease to exist. The power of water is tremendous. Not only does it support all life, water is also destructive. We recognize this early on in Torah. In the very first parsha, Genesis, the world is created, and water is the source of life. In the very next parsha, Noah, the earth is flooded and all life is destroyed (except for the life on Noah’s ark).
The Torah and Jewish liturgy teach us much about our relationship to water and our dependence on rain. Tefillat Geshem, the prayer for rain is recited on Shemini Atzeret (at the end of Sukkot). In this prayer we ask God to send rain:
For their sake, do not withhold water.
For the sake of their righteousness,
grant the gift of flowing water.
Liturgically it is important to note that we don’t offer prayers as a way to request rain, but rather we praise God’s power to bring the rain. First we acknowledge that all that we are given is through God’s power. From that place, we pray not just for rain, but the right kind of rain–the proper amount at the time it is needed. Specifically, we pray for rain and wind in the fall and winter and for dew in the spring and summer.
Tefillat Geshem addresses our anxiety about the extremes of not enough and too much. Because we are aware of the creative and destructive aspects of water, we call on God’s might to get it “just right.” The ending of the prayer sums up this tension:
For you are Hashem our God,
Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.
May it fall as a blessing and not as a curse.
May it be for life and not for death.
May it bring abundance and not lack.”
Essentially, in Tefillat Geshem, we pray for balance and harmony in the natural world. Unfortunately, we are in a time of extreme weather. The seasonal patterns are out of balance. After several years of severe drought–the land cracked and parched, water sources evaporating and drying up–we find ourselves soaked and flooded. There has been tremendous damage to our state.
We pray for things to settle, for the waters to recede, for people’s safety and well being, and for what has been damaged to be restored speedily.
May we enter a time of balance, where rain falls in amounts appropriate to the season–not just here in California, but throughout the world. Most importantly, may we have the courage and strength to recognize our role in causing this imbalance and support each other in the tikkun that is necessary to bring things back into balance.