I always look forward to the prayers for rain, both the Tefillat Geshem according to the Ashkenazi rite, and Tikkun haGeshem recited by “Sephardic” communities. I will try my hand at offering some thoughts this year about Tefillat Geshem. Already in Psalms rain is an expression of God’s power, expressed most explicitly throughout all of Psalms 29:
Ascribe to God, O divine beings, ascribe to God glory and strength. Ascribe to God the glory of God’s name; bow down to God, majestic in holiness. The voice of God is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, over the mighty waters. The voice of God is power; the voice of God is majesty; the voice of God breaks cedars; God shatters the cedars of Lebanon. Sirion, like a young wild ox. The voice of God kindles flames of fire; the voice of God convulses the wilderness; God convulses the wilderness of Kadesh; the voice of God causes hinds to calve, while in God’s sanctuary all say “Glory!” God sat enthroned at the Flood; God sits enthroned, King forever. May God grant strength to God’s people; may God bestow on God’s people well-being.
The Psalm describes a thunderstorm as a metaphor of God’s “voice,” thundering throughout the world, making God’s power, majesty and sovereignty manifest throughout all of creation. The ancient rabbis associated rain with God’s power explicitly:
From when do we mention the powers of [bringing] rain? Rabbi Eliezer says: from the first day of the Festival [of Sukkot]. Rabbi Joshua says: on the last day of the Festival [of Sukkot]. (Mishnah Ta’anit 1:1)
Rain in the Tanach not only represents God’s power, but also represents God’s empathy, compassion, and love for humanity. For example, Isaiah declared:
Pour down, O skies, from above! Let the heavens rain down victory! Let the earth open up and triumph sprout, Yes, let vindication spring up: I, God, have created it. (Isaiah 45:8)
Rain, for Isaiah in this speech, symbolizes the triumph of righteousness throughout the world. Righteousness should shower the earth. The power of justice, of tzedek, will bring fecundity like rain. The rabbis developed this image almost word for word in the daily amidah prayer for the future “flourishing” of God’s sovereignty manifest through the leadership of the House of David:
Speedily cause the sprout of David, Your servant, to flourish and exalt his power with Your deliverance. We hope daily for Your deliverance. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who causes the power of salvation to sprout.
Seen through prophetic eyes, the hope this blessing expresses for the messianic redemption of the world echoes Isaiah’s language of the “sprouting of righteousness throughout the world,” enabling humanity to flourish. In relational terms, God cares deeply about the world God created, and in particular, for the well-being of humanity. The Jewish people’s purpose in this world-view is to serve as a barometer of humanity. God looks to the Jewish people as a caliper to measure how well humanity is doing on the scales of righteousness, justice, empathy, compassion and chesed, always looking to extend the lines of chesed beyond those of din, or strict judgment. That theme was developed in the parable of the Book of Yonah on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called God’ deep concern for humanity, “divine pathos.” Heschel coined this phrase in part in order to explain God’s rage. God cares so deeply for humanity and the world, that both the human indifference to suffering and human cruelties causing catastrophic pain enrage and alienate God. The biblical imagery of God’s alienation includes hester panim, God hiding God’s face from the world. An imagery evoking divine anger includes withholding rain, or causing rains of destruction. The relational intensity of God’s hopes and expectations of the Jewish people, and by extension, of all humanity, is captured in one of Moshe’s final speeches to Bene Yisrael in Sefer Devarim, and was liturgized as the second section of the shema:
And it will be— if you vigilantly obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love Hashem your God, and serve God with your entire hearts and with your entire souls— that I will give rain for your land in its proper time, the early (autumn) rain and the late (spring) rain; The heavy rains which open the growing season in the fall and the showers which fall while the grain is ripening are of utmost importance. and you will harvest your grain and your wine and your oil. And I will put grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your hearts be swayed and you turn astray, and you worship alien gods and bow to them. And Hashem’s fury will blaze among you, and God will close off the heavens and there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce; and you will perish swiftly from the good land which Adonoy gives you. (Devarim 11)
Rain connects Heaven and earth. It fertilizes the otherwise barren, dry soil, filling it with moisture. The ancient term for understanding this relationship conveys the intimacy between husband and wife: an irrigation of baal, meaning that unlike the land of Egypt which was irrigated through the systematic, routine overflowing of the Nile, the land of Israel would be impregnated by Heaven. The words of the shema make that intimacy between God and humanity contingent upon loyalty to covenantal living, the following of mitzvot. By recognizing God’s sovereignty, humanity was a chance of protecting themselves from arrogance, remaining humble and grateful for the gifts of life the Creator has bestowed upon us.
This tension between God’s hopes for human behavior, and rain as an expression of God’s anger and love is expressed explicitly in the opening words of Tefillat Geshem. The name of the angel of rain, Af Bri, suggests that sometimes God is enraged, and sometimes filled with love and empathy, promoting health and well-being, and that rain symbolizes both aspects of humanity’s relationship to the Creator:
Af-Bri who overcasts [the sky], and makes clouds, emptying them and causing rain to fall. Water with currents with which to adorn the valley; let it not be withheld because of [our] unpaid debts. The “debts” are our sins. Let [the merit of] the faithful. Blessed are You, Lord, Shield of Abraham.
There are several metaphorical ways of describing sin in the Tanach. Common are sins as stains and sins as burdens. Here, sins are debts to be repaid. Already in these opening words, the poet was captured the dual nature of our relationship to a God of pathos for humanity, and rain as the medium for living that relationship. Geshem is not a prayer for rain. It is a liturgical poem expressing and evoking an awareness of God’s power and relationship to humanity through rain. We do not begin praying for rain for another several weeks. The main body of the prayer about rain therefore is read during the second blessing of the amidah. That blessing itself describes examples of God’s absolute power: God lifts the fallen, heals the sick, and releases the imprisoned. The most striking example of God’s power, however, in this blessing is God’s ability to resurrect the dead. This is described several times throughout the otherwise short blessing: You resurrect the dead with absolute, unmitigated power; You resurrect the dead as an act of pure love and rachamim; You sustain trustworthiness even with those sleeping underground; Blessed are You, God, who bestows life to the dead.
The body of Geshem evokes the memory of the patriarchs, then Moses, then the leadership of Aharon’s family as Kohanim, and then the tribes of Israel:
Remember the patriarch who was drawn to You like water. (Avraham) Remember the one whose birth was foretold [when Abraham said:] “Let a little water be brought.” (Yitzchak) Remember the one who, carrying his staff, crossed Jordan’s water. (Yaakov) Remember the one [Moses] who was drawn out, in a reed basket, from the water. (Moshe) Remember the Holy Temple appointee. (Aharon, Kohanim) Remember the twelve tribes, whom You brought through the divided waters.
The term, zechor, does not just mean to recall in thought. It means, “feel what You felt originally, and relive that moment now with us.” This is the same meaning of zechor during the recitation of kiddush Friday night. We are not recalling creation; we are bearing witness to having re-lived the creation of the world in its fulfillment yet again with the advent of the seventh day of the week. As such, shabbat is a weekly renewal and rebirth of life in the world. Here, too, the poet is having us ask God to relive the emotional relationship God had with each of these archetypal spiritual heroes of our past, and direct those feelings towards us. Avraham loved you, God; remember? Turn towards us and see us as You saw him. Yitchak was born from an act of chesed. Remember that moment, God? Feel it again as You turn towards the world today. Remember Your feelings when Yaakov was separated from his family, yet struggled for an identity with that unnamed challenger? Feel that again as You consider humanity today. Remember that small, weak child in the basket in the Nile, and how You believed in his potential so that he grew into a leader with supreme humility? You loved him! Love us the same way, please, and show Your love for the world by showering us with fructifying rains in their season! And that is how we end the prayer:
Rains for blessing and not for curse. Amen For life and not for death. Amen For plenty and not for scarcity. Amen
All humanity has to do to ask for God’s life-affirming blessings, is to recapture the sensibilities and commitments of these spiritual mentors. All we have to do to merit the rains of plenty, is to revive the sensibilities that remain dormant and dead inside of us: the sensibility of chesed, compassion, empathy, righteousness and humility. That, perhaps, is the truth of the resurrection of the dead in our times.