On the East Coast of the US we’ve been inundated with unusually heavy rain throughout the late winter and spring. Yet during the storms and in the brief glimpses of sunlight in between it’s hard not to feel Nature singing God’s praises… whether in the lightning-flashes, or in the birdsong, the dew on the morning grass, the curtain of stars in the night sky. The medieval Jewish classic, Perek Shira, Chapter of Song, captures this life-giving song, placing short biblical praises of God from across the Hebrew Bible into the “mouths” of stars and beetles and horses, among other wonders of the natural world. I have celebrated the birth of my first grandchild by creating an aleph-bet picture book that adapts Perek Shira into a celebration of the environment and its Creator for children of all ages, All the World Praises You! an illuminated aleph-bet book, appearing July 15. Honeybees for my name, and dahlias, for my little granddaughter lead you on a wild ride through our precious environment, replete with non-denominational Jewish spiritual joy and environmental ethics. This essay is the third in a series that I’ll post over the next few weeks, presenting art and ideas drawn from this celebration of nature in the Jewish soul.
(Psalm 68:10) You released a bountiful rain, O God, when Your own land languished, You sustained it.
In an arid land, rain enables life. Today Israel satisfies its needs for water through technological solutions and conservation, but in the subsistence agricultural communities of ancient Israel, crops, herding and life itself were uncertain—utterly dependent upon rain in winter and dew in the summer, constantly vulnerable to drought. In this complex psalm, the poet refers to several biblical tales of water as some of the greatest miracles with which God protects and gives “strength and might” to Israel. Nowadays, we are also aware that just as the forty days and forty nights of rain of Noah’s flood (Braishit/Genesis 6-8) could destroy life, today we hope to protect balanced rainfall—not too little, not too much.
Rain is a powerful indicator of divine favor throughout Jewish lore, mentioned 36 times throughout Tanakh and appearing also in traditional liturgy. Apart from the verse cited here, find and consider the following sampling:
- The second paragraph of the Shema (Dvarim/Deuteronomy 11:13-21) describes rain as a Divine reward for Israel’s devotion, and punishment for sin.
- The Prayer for Rain recited during the Mussaf Amidah on Shemini Atzeret.
- Judges 5:4; The Song of Deborah describes how God caused the clouds to drip water at Wadi Kishon, ensuring Israel’s victory over the Canaanite general Sisera.
- I Kings 17-18, in which Elijah, having prophesied the failure of the rains while King Ahab sinned, sustains the life of the widow and her son.
- Proverbs 25:14, “Like clouds, wind—but no rain—is one who boasts of gifts not given.”
You may wish to find a concordance of the Tanakh and review and discuss the different shades of meaning attached to rain. (a concordance is a book that indexes every word in a work of literature and lists every place where the given word appears. The leading Hebrew/English concordances for Tanakh are by (a) Mandelkern, and (b)Brown, Driver and Briggs.)
When the winter rains arrive in the African veldt the dry grasslands spring to life. Watering holes fill where the rains fall, and animals crowd around to drink and wash. Where the rain has saturated the dry ground the withered grass sprouts with new life and the bare trees send forth leaves and blossoms. Jutting into view we see not only the tiny honeybee sitting atop the dahlia, but also a stalk of pink lilies. You will find the lovely midrashic tale and symbolism of the lily in the commentary on the letter tet in All the World Praises You! In a break above the clouds we glimpse the deep field of the sky glittering with innumerable stars (again adapted from the Hubble photograph in Aleph, in the first post in this series and in the book), reminding us of God’s unseen but all-suffusing presence.
The poetry and painting lead us to muse about aspects of our own lives, our relationship with God, and how we relate to the natural world in both our mundane and our spiritual lives.
- Do you regard rain as a nuisance or as an essential part of life?
- Has the area you live in experienced a change in rain patterns?
- What does the rain in your area tell you about the health of the land, and the way we humans meet our obligation (and self-interest) to care for the land?
You will find more information on All the World Praises You! on its webpage. Another version of this essay, including suggestions for related reading, along with materials for elementary-school age and bar/bat mitzvah age readers— rich discussions of the paintings’ meaning, the letter itself, explorations in environmental science, and even links to “citizen-science” programs— are available at Diving Deeper! Enrichment Materials for All the World Praises You! Enjoy— There’s more to come!
All the World Praises You! is available (shipping July 15) wherever books are sold in the USA, and through Amazon.com across the world. Please see www.AlltheWorldPraisesYou.com for more information. The notes above are adapted from Diving Deeper: Enrichment Materials for All the World Praises You: please click on the link above for more!
All the World Praises You! an illuminated aleph-bet book, by Debra Band, with new translations by Arnold J. Band. All materials herein copyright (c) Debra Band 2018. All rights reserved.