‘In Season’ Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5780

Parashat Bechukotai begins with a concise[1] list of blessings that the Jewish People will merit if we keep the Torah scrupulously. These blessings include bumper crops, personal health, and military victories. The first blessing is, unsurprisingly, copious rainfall [Vayikra 26:2]: “I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” The reason we should not be surprised that rainfall is the blessing mentioned first is because in a more familiar set of blessings, one we read twice a day, rain is also mentioned first. The second paragraph of the Shema prayer mimics the structure of the blessings in Parashat Bechukotai: If you obey then you will merit wonderful things and if you disobey, you will pay a heavy price. Here, too, the first blessing pertains to rainfall [Devarim 11:14]: “I will grant the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil”. The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, explains why rain is a natural candidate for the first blessing. He proposes an ecological-minded explanation that could have been written by Henry David Thoreau: “The Torah mentions the rains first because when it rains in the proper time the air is pure and fresh and the [waters of the] springs and rivers are healthy. The result is physical health. The fruit yields will increase and be blessed from the rains… As a result, no one will be sick. There will be no bereaved or barren woman among them, or among their livestock. They will live full lives. This is because when their bodies develop their full potential and are healthy they will live like Adam’s length of days. This is the greatest of blessings.” Abundant rainfall naturally leads to all of the blessings promised in the portion.

The blessings in Parashat Bechukotai and in the Shema are strikingly similar. Not only do both blessings promise rainfall, but they both promise that the rain will fall “in season (b’ito)”. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, offers an identical explanation for the meaning of the phrase “in season” in both blessings. He suggests that not only will it rain, but it will rain at a time that will cause the least amount of inconvenience, on Friday nights, when people are typically inside their homes eating their Shabbat meals.[2]

It seems that Rashi is missing a significant point. The Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit [1:7] discusses the procedure enacted in response to severe drought. This procedure gradually increases in severity as the drought wears on and includes fasting, special prayers, and throttling back nearly all signs of joy. Eventually, if the rain does not being to fall, we raise our hands in defeat: “The individuals go back to fasting anew until the end of [the month of] Nissan. If Nissan passes and then rain falls this is a sign of a curse”. According to normative Jewish law, the date upon which “Nissan passes” is determined by the solar calendar[3] and is set at April 21. This makes sense. In Israel, rain falls only in the winter. Spring rains in Israel can cause extensive damage. A few years back, a rare mid-May rain storm struck Israel. The wheat in the fields had already dried and lay ready for the combine. The rain caused the wheat to rot, resulting in millions of dollars of damage. Why, then, does Rashi not explain rain falling “in season” as rain falling at a time – a season – when it is beneficial and not detrimental[4]? Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the “Maharal”, who lived in Prague in the sixteenth century, addresses this question in “Gur Aryeh”, his supercommentary on Rashi. The Maharal points at two other blessings in the list in Parashat Bechukotai [Vayikra 26:5]: “Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your food to satiety”. The Maharal presents a logical progression: The crops are lasting in the field far longer than they should be lasting and whatever the people eat satiates them. We will obviously be living in miraculous times, so who cares when rain falls?

Comparing the explanations of the Ramban and the Maharal, it seems fair to say that the Ramban asserts that the blessings in Parashat Bechukotai will transpire naturally while the Maharal asserts that they will transpire supernaturally. Nevertheless, I suggest that the viewpoints of the  Ramban and the Maharal are closer than we might think and that they are both trying to express a concept that hundreds of years later remains only slightly less thorny.

The 1980’s saw an explosion of research in “Chaotic Systems”. Chaos theory concerns deterministic systems whose behaviour can in principle be predicted. Chaotic systems are predictable for a short while and then appear to become random. One of the characteristics of all chaotic systems is that they are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This means that if two identical systems start at two different starting points, even if those points are infinitesimally close, the outcomes of the two systems will eventually diverge. Chaotic System Theory is not pseudoscience. It has a rigorous mathematic basis and is regularly used to explain the behaviour of large complex systems. One classic example of a chaotic system is the weather. Weather is notoriously difficult to predict. While we are used to hearing that “Today there is a 40% chance of rain”, we would be surprised to hear that “Today, there is a 40% chance that when we turn the steering wheel to the right, the car will turn to the right”. If both the weather and automobile dynamics are determined by well-defined physical systems, why is weather forecasting so imprecise?  The answer is a result of the sensitivity of chaotic systems to initial conditions. Since the data we plug into our forecasting model – temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure at a number of locations around the world – will always be imprecise to some extent, our capability to forecast more than three or four days into the future is severely limited. Tiny errors are progressively amplified until the noise eventually overwhelms the signal. As a result, not only is long distance weather forecasting like throwing dice, it is, in fact, impossible. In order to accurately predict the weather, it is necessary to know the humidity, the temperature, and the barometric pressure at every point in the world and with infinite accuracy. Obviously this precludes any long-term weather forecasting. The behaviour of chaotic systems has been quaintly described as the “Butterfly Effect” – where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China can eventually cause a monsoon in Brazil.

The chaotic nature of weather can explain why we pray for rain but we do not pray for our car to turn in the direction of the steering wheel. When we turn the wheel to the right, we know the car will turn to the right. When we step on the accelerator, we know the car will speed up. But when we see dark clouds, we have no idea if rain will begin falling in a minute, an hour, or not at all. Uncertainty is built into the system. Only G-d, Who has infinite knowledge, can truly know what the weather will bring. We pray that He make the necessary infinitesimal course corrections – perhaps by reducing the temperature by only one billionth of a degree in one location in the world – so that rain will fall.

Centuries ago, the Ramban and the Maharal both recognized the futility in predicting the weather. The Maharal felt that as only G-d knows when and where the rain will fall, everything becomes relegated to the supernatural: Rain falling in the summer is no less miraculous than rain falling in the winter. The Ramban, on the other hand, understood that nature was not being changed, it was being directed. Things that could potentially happen, would happen. Seen in this light, nature is a miraculous phenomenon, where G-d is shrouded by physical laws. So who was right? In the words of the Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [13b], “Both of them speak the words of the Living G-d”. While neither the Ramban or the Maharal had ever heard of chaos theory, both were intimately familiar with G-d.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] The list of curses that will, Heaven forbid, befall us if we are less than scrupulous in our observance is considerably longer.

[2] Some editions of Rashi also mention rain falling on Wednesday evenings, when the demons are out and about. We’ll leave this as a footnote for now.

[3] Solar-determined dates in Jewish Law are few and far between.

[4] The discussion of whether rain after Pesach is considered a curse or even a blessing is an complex topic and is a function of multiple disagreements between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud. Moreover, certain sections of the more esoteric Torah teach that rainfall after Pesach is actually a blessing.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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