When I moved to Phoenix two years ago, I was looking forward to experiencing the Southwest Monsoon firsthand. As a weather buff, I had long been aware of this summertime shift in the prevailing winds that delivers moist tropical air to the Southwestern US; the resultant thunderstorms provide this largely desert region with 30 to 40% — and, in some cases, even more — of its annual precipitation. Alas, in our day and age, when it comes to climate, all bets are off. The 2019 monsoon was paltry and last summer’s was the driest on record, a “nonsoon” some Arizonans called it. Throw an equally arid winter into the mix and it’s no surprise that more than half of my new state is now gripped by “exceptional” drought — the most severe such category.
The 19th-century American essayist Charles Dudley Warner famously complained: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Well, I did. I composed “Tefillat ha-Malkosh: A Prayer for the Southwest Monsoon.” To be sure, prayer is but refined, ritualized speech. However, the process of writing and, this last Shabbat, reciting it, delivered, in the absence of actual rain for the soil, symbolic rain to my soul. It also brought me closer, at one and the same time, to both Jewish tradition and the land of Israel, and to climate science and my new Arizonan home.
Please allow me to explain…
As I first began to compose my prayer, I turned for inspiration to “Tefillat ha-Geshem,” the late antique Palestinian piyyut recited on Shemini Atzeret in the Eastern European rite with which I grew up. I have long appreciated this text’s riddling aspect, its evocation of our foundational heroes and their associations with water without actually referencing them by name. I decided to imitate this feature, all while moving beyond the piyyut’s reliance upon the usual (male) suspects. Miriam is present, thanks to her midrashic association with the well that bears her name, as is Salome Alexandra, the Hasmonean queen whose wise rule was rewarded (so says early rabbinic tradition) with rains so ample that grains of wheat grew as large as kidneys, barley grains as large as olive pits, and lentils as large as coins. Mentioned as well is Arizonan Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in battle for the United States (she fell in the Iraq War). I resolved to include her upon learning that her last name translates loosely in the Hopi language as “the people who live by the water,” from a root connoting “pools in the desert after a heavy rain.”
In addition, I adorned the primarily English text of the prayer with substantial Hebrew selections, including a closing supplicatory riff on Lamentations 5:21 “ḥadeish meimeinu ka-kedem” (“Renew our waters as of old”), and sought to render monsoon itself in the holy tongue. It seemed appropriate to do so, as this English term stems from the Arabic mawsim (via the Portuguese monçao), a legacy of past Arab domination of the spice trade in what is today India, site of the world’s most famous monsoon. Ultimately, I settled upon “malkosh,” the classical Hebrew term for the late season rains (see Deut. 11:14), because the Southwest Monsoon occurs toward the close of the Jewish year, following the bone-dry spring.
“Malkosh” not only suits the meteorological reality here, but also provides a welcome link to both Eretz Yisrael and Tanakh. (Its initial “m” and two syllables also point in its favor.)
A further link to Scripture came in my decision to set the recitation of the prayer on the Shabbat of Parashat Ḥukat. Chock-full of episodes evoking the search for water in the desert, including Miriam’s death (the inspiration for the above-mentioned midrashic tradition), this pericope speaks directly to life in Arizona and is typically read in early-to-mid July, the usual time of the monsoon’s onset. This year, Shabbat Ḥukat fell unusually early (June 18-19), but that, too, was perfectly appropriate, for the “official” start-date for monsoon season is June 15th and June 19th marked the close of “Monsoon Awareness Week,” during which the local media actively report on the dangers posed by the lightning, dust storms, and flash flooding monsoon season can unleash. (My prayer promotes a different kind of “monsoon awareness,” one could say). I was gratified that my congregation, as well as other synagogues in the region, expressed interest in reciting the prayer on this Shabbat.
But in a tradition dominated by the centrality of Eretz Yisrael, in which liturgy rarely touches upon the local, is it not strange to offer a formal prayer for a specific American region’s rainfall? To be sure, numerous Jewish communities have historically had commemorations and prayers unique to them. Across the medieval and early modern periods, “Special Purims” recalled the deliverance of individual kehillot from looming destruction, and still today the Jews of Rome celebrate their similar “Moed di Piombo” each year on the second of Shevat. For their part, Jews of Ethiopian origin annually reconfirm their devotion to the Torah on the “Sigd” holiday. And yet, such occasions stop well short of prayer for a particular Diaspora location for its own sake.
I wish, however, to suggest that the liturgical inclusion in our time of local, not-specifically Jewish, concerns can enhance Judaism’s relevance and thereby strengthen individual communities. When I introduced and then recited “Tefillat ha-Monsoon” at my Conservative synagogue in Phoenix this past Shabbat, I engaged my community with a text that echoed both land of Israel and Sonoran Desert, ancient Israelite struggles in the desert and worsening drought across the Southwest. I demonstrated that our Jewish and general identities need not be at odds, but can actually contribute to and reinforce one another in unanticipated, yet powerful ways. I have no idea what the 2021/5781 monsoon season will bring, but I do know that praying for it has made me both a better Arizonan and a better Jew.