Every Jewish joke reveals an insecurity. Two men of Chelm went out for a walk, when suddenly it began to rain.” Quick," said one. "Open your umbrella." "It won't help," said his friend. "My umbrella is full of holes." "Then why did you bring it?" "I didn't think it would rain!"
Jews have always been concerned about (and even prayed for) rain. One of the greatest neuroses we give to our kids is when we teach them to pray for rain but then inform them that the rain we pray for does not fall here.
In the Beit HaMikdash, on Sukkot there was a special joyous ceremony entailing the pouring of water called the Simchat Beit Ha’Shoeva. It was considered a very joyous thing and included a lot of singing, dancing, and even juggling.
The Mishnah (Sukkah 5:3) teaches that every courtyard in Jerusalem was illuminated from the light of the water drawing ceremony of the temple: “One who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 51a-b). The joy of water affected all then.
The simple joy of water does not exist for all today. I can recall during my time in Senegal, Africa two years ago how polluted all of the village well water was. The lack of clean drinking, bathing, cleaning water was one of the most harmful forces in each community putting each village and each family at increased risk of many fatal diseases.
In fact, about one-sixth of the world’s population (more than 1.1 billion people) lack access to safe drinking water, and more than one-third (around 2.6 billion) lack adequate sanitation. This frequently leads to a water crisis, where the available potable, unpolluted water within a region is less than that region's demand. These water crises create or exacerbate numerous problems such as droughts and famine, diseases through inadequate sanitation, the sustainability of the planet’s plant and animal life, and regional conflict (i.e., “water wars”). With water use doubling every 20 years, and deserts moving north due to global warming, a serious emergency is upon us. While these seem remote, the ongoing drought affecting much of the United States has hurt farmers deeply.
While America has had water problems, Israel is in a deep water crisis. Over each of the past five years, rainfall in Israel has been significantly below average. In the past two years, it was 30-35 percent below average, resulting in a severe and worsening water crisis. It is becoming clear that this is not a blip but a trend. Even more troubling, lakes and rivers are drying up. This has even adversely affected the current water quality. Dalia Itzik, a former Israeli environmental minister, said that 40 percent of water piped into Israel and Palestinian homes is 'undrinkable'. Israel, comprising desert land, is also surrounded mainly by desert, compounding the regional impact of drought and water crisis.
Water plays a huge role in regional conflict. It will continue to influence future diplomatic discussions between Israel and surrounding countries, especially now that the Jordan is gradually drying up. This continues a pattern dating from the time that the Philistines sealed the wells that Isaac had dug.
Uzi Lanau, Israel’s Water and Energy Minister, maintained in September 2012 that desalination plants would provide the solution to the nation’s chronic water shortage. Currently, these desalination plants produce 300 million cubic meters of drinking water per year, and by 2014 should produce 600 million cubic meters, about half of Israel’s water consumption, and by the end of the decade he predicted that nearly all Israelis would be drinking desalinated water.
However, critics point out that Israel recently had a 6-year drought, and increased rainfall in early 2011 would not be enough to make up for this, as there is still a shortfall of about a billion cubic meters of water. The Sea of Galilee and mountain aquifers, the two main sources of water, remain at critical low levels.
Another potential solution is to use recycled water from laundry, dishwashing, and non-toilet bathroom use to water lawns and gardens, wash vehicles, and fill other cleaning functions in place of drinking water. Treated waste water could be used for irrigation, relieving some of the pressure on the water supply.
Traditionally, the crisis was more in the diaspora. The Midrash explains “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept…‟ (Psalm 137:1). Why did the Jewish people cry by the rivers of Babylon? Rabbi Yochanan said, “The Euphrates (river) killed more of them than the wicked Nebuchadnetzer did. When the Jews lived in the land of Israel, they drank only rainwater, freshwater and spring water. When they were exiled to Babylon, they drank the (polluted) water of the Euphrates, and many of them died” (Pesikta Rabati, 28).
At Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, we return to nature to acknowledge our need for our bare essentials. And we begin to pray for water. This is the water holiday. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 1:2) says: “At four junctures [of the year] the world is judged: at Pesach concerning the produce [grain]; at Shavuot concerning the fruit of the tree; at Rosh Hashana, all people pass before him.... and at Sukkot they are judged concerning water.”
Water is of such critical importance as most of our planet and most our human bodies consist of water. “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai once taught: three things are of equal importance, earth, humans, and rain. Rabbi Levi ben Hiyyata said: ... to teach that without earth, there is no rain, and without rain, the earth cannot endure, and without either, humans cannot exist” (Genesis Rabbah 13:3).
Further, there is a significant human egalitarian nature to rain. “A certain non-Jew asked Rabbi Yehoshua: “You have festivals, and we have festivals. We do not rejoice when you do, and you do not rejoice when we do. When do we both rejoice together?” “When the rain falls,” answered Rabbi Yehoshua” (Genesis Rabbah 13:6).
The actual prayer for rain occurs after Sukkot, during the lesser-known Shemini Atzeret. During the Musaf prayers, the cantor, dressed in a white kittel (evoking the solemnity and critical need for water during this season), walks forward for the tefilat geshem, the prayer for rain. In the Amidah, from here until Passover, a phrase is added: “masheev ha’rua’ch u’moreed hagashem” (“Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”). This prayer reinforces the Jewish covenant, where obedience to G-d’s laws is essential for survival. In contrast, ancient Mesopotamian societies, plagued by unpredictable flooding, tyrannical god-kings, and frequent warfare, tended to view their deities as capricious and cruel. In ancient Egypt, the Nile offered a dependable water supply and predictable flooding, but also to complacency, idolatry, and the worship of material goods. The Jewish model appreciates rain because it is scarce and valuable, and preserves spirituality.
Today, there is a new-found appreciation for water, that we cannot keep doubling our use of water while despoiling and depleting our sources. Is it appropriate for us to build oil pipelines over important freshwater sources, or engage in fracking for natural gas near well water? We must reflect on the concern for water that is present in the holiday of Shemini Atzeret.
In a profoundly mystical Gemarrah (Ta’anit 2a), we learn of the connection between prayer and rain. “Rabbi Yochanan said, the keys to three things were kept in the hand of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and not given over to an intermediary [nature]. They are, the key to rain, the key to childbirth and the key to the revival of the dead. The Key of Rain, for It is written, The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season“ (Deuteronomy 28:12). Another Midrash teaches how showing mercy to others who is struggling is what enables G-d’s mercy to release more rain (Bereshit Rabbah 33).
In the coming year, may we think more deeply about how we use our water, donate to villages working on clean water projects, support research, and use the coming 6 months as we pray for a rain as an opportunity to get more involved!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"