Let’s Recommend that Californians and Cambodians Go to Israel This Sukkot

It’s a simple verse from the end of Zecharyah, read by Jews all over the world every Sukkot. It tells a way that those who suffer from water scarcity could help themselves to a better situation. Yet I don’t recall hearing anyone discuss it, within Orthodox circles and certainly not without.

First, let’s remember that with all our modern technology, with all the wonders science has wrought, much of the world does not have the water it needs. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on sanitation as a way of helping two billion people get cleaner water. California and Cambodia, for just two examples, are in serious if not dire water shortage.

It is in that context that I am reminded of Zecharyah 14;16-7, which says that in the future, any nation that does not come to Jerusalem to bow before Hashem on Sukkot will not get rain.  Rashi and Radak take the verse literally, Rashi explaining that many practices of Sukkot—waving the arba minim, the Four Species, and performing nissuch hamayim, libating water– are ways of asking for rain; those who do not participate will therefore not get it.

Jews might leave that verse out of conversations about water scarcity because they know no one today would take such a claim seriously.  I bring it up here because I fear that, increasingly, it is also true that many Centrist and Modern Orthodox Jews do not themselves believe that non-Jews’ coming to pray to Hashem on Sukkot would have any impact on how their upcoming water year would go.

Does It Necessarily Mean What It Seems To?

Before I try to rejuvenate this verse’s place in our approach to the world water crisis, let’s check that it means what I’ve claimed. Abarbanel, for example, assumes that the prophecy applies only after the cataclysmic war described previously in Zecharyah, a war he believed would make Hashem’s Providence clear to the entire world.

Only in that context would a refusal to come to Jerusalem count as a rebellion that would incur the punishment of drought. As long as we assume that war has not yet happened, Abarbanel would say we have no reason to think non-Jews would be punished with a lack of rain for their failure to come to Jerusalem on Sukkot.

Have We Seen Zecharyah’s War?

It’s plausible that we haven’t yet seen that war, since the nations of earth do not all concede Hashem’s rule over the world. Nor have they recognized that Jews have a particular role in history, which they fulfill by living in Israel and serving Hashem.

To digress for a paragraph, that adds a sobering note to our expectations for the future. The various prophecies about a war making Hashem’s rule of the world clear predict massive deaths, some by the dying’s skin melting off their bodies. A war so horrible that no one could any longer deny the simple truth of Hashem’s rule.

To say we have not yet seen that war means the tragedies of World War II weren’t that. If so, what do we have awaiting us, such that the world will come to accept Hashem?

Do We Have To Wait for Prophecies to Come True?

Without judging Abarbanel, I suggest that the verse still shows us a way to improve lives today. One of the insights of the Religious Zionist movement was that we need not wait for prophecies to come true, that sometimes (always?), if we take a first step, Hashem will take many steps in return. If we make an opening only large enough to thread a needle, Hashem will expand it to be as wide as the doors to the Beit HaMikdash.

It might be that non-Jews’ rain is not dependent on their praying in Jerusalem on Sukkot, because we haven’t had the war that proves Hashem’s Providence. That doesn’t mean their doing it wouldn’t have an effect. We can’t know ahead of time, but the verse gives the clear impression that asking Hashem for rain on Sukkot is particularly effective, for Jews and non-Jews.

Those areas facing serious drought and water shortage are spending billions to avail themselves of multiple strategies; were they to believe this might help, why wouldn’t they try it? Were we to believe it might help, why wouldn’t we suggest it?

Tens of millions of people in the western United States are affected by lack of rain and overuse of the Colorado River. What would happen if only a hundred thousand Californians went to Israel this coming Sukkot, making clear that they had accepted the truth that Hashem is the source of rain, that Hashem’s Providence affects us all, committed sincerely to living lives more in accordance with how Hashem views the world, and asked for rain? What would happen if just Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s legislators all went, saying (and meaning) all that?

If We Don’t Believe It

I’m not entirely a fool or a dreamer, it’s not like I think it’s going to happen. I’m writing about it because I worry that many people I know, observant Jews (even some in the more “right-wing” world, where hashgachah, Providence, is a more common concept) don’t themselves accept what I’ve written here. I worry that many of us have become comfortable ignoring prophecies, leaving them for some undefined future.

The past seventy years, however, have shown us that prophecies come true in unexpected ways, and often we can take the first step. Look at the State of Israel today, whose efflorescence despite continuing challenges fulfills many prophecies that seemed beyond pie-eyed a century ago. If we could bring some relief to those suffering, isn’t taking a flyer on the chance that Hashem would respond positively worth the attempt?

I also bring this up because it is a chance to take prophecy seriously where it isn’t negative or doomsaying (in our times, anyway). To suggest that non-Jews’ coming to Israel for Sukkot could have positive effects in no way implies that their current struggles are a punishment. It only says that they could alleviate or solve their problem by accepting, admitting, and praying for Divine Providence.

Making It Practical

The governor of California and the king of Cambodia won’t read this essay, much as I might hope they would. Those reading it, however, can renew their recognition of these truths, telling ourselves and others– whenever it comes up– that we believe in a God Who affects the world, directly, in response to our service as well as all the ways we call the course of Nature.

Until we believe it enough to say it, to ourselves and those in whom we confide, there’s little chance we’ll do our job of being an or la-goyim, a light of simple truths that improve the world. Including this one, which would help millions if not billions live more comfortable, more secure, more productive lives.

I believe that if I had the opportunity, I would speak up. Because I believe it. Do you? Would you?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.