While we in the Diaspora will begin praying for rain this Motzei Shabbos by adding the line V’sein tal u’matar l’vracha, many are aware that our Israeli brothers and sisters have been saying it since the seventh day of Cheshvan. Less familiar is exactly why they begin saying it in Israel when they do. The Mishnah in Maseches Taanis tells us the opinion of Rabban Gamliel: they wait until the 7th of Cheshvan to daven for rain because that’s when everyone who went to Yerushalayim for Sukkos would get back home.
Of great interest though, is the exact language used by the Mishnah. It says we wait until “acharon she’biyisrael,” the very last Jew to return home safely before beginning to daven for rain. What makes this phrase so astounding? Imagine the following scenario. You live close to Yerushulayim and returned after Sukkos quite quickly. You are now ready and eager for it to begin raining so that you can sleep well knowing your crops and produce will have a successful year. Each day that passes without rainfall makes you more and more nervous about your livelihood and how you will feel your family.
By the first few days of Cheshvan, the vast majority of Jews have returned home. Only a few stragglers who live in the farthest points are still on their journey. You once again look out onto your field, only this time with growing anxiety and concern. You desperately need the rain to start failing. And yet, you still are proscribed from praying for it. Sensing your worry, your child approaches you and wonders why you don’t simply daven for rain. After all, aren’t most people already home safe and sound? You respond that yes, while most Jews are home, there are still a few people who live very far away and are still on their trip.
It is now the sixth day of Cheshvan and things are getting somewhat desperate. Your child once again approaches you and wonders why you still cannot daven for rain. At this point, ninety nine percent of Jews have returned home! All of them are looking out their nervously windows and anxious about their crops. All of them greatly want to start davening for rain. And yet, when your child asks you why you can’t daven for it, you look at him and make the following extraordinary declaration: “We have to wait for the last Jew to arrive home.”
Here we are ignoring the desire of an entire nation to pray for rain, something that each and every one of them needed more than anything else to ensure their livelihoods. And yet, because of a concern for “acharon she’biyisrael” one single, straggling Jew, we delay those prayers.
A friend of mine shared with me a piece by the Kuntres Ahavas Yisrael who writes that this is exactly the point. The inability to pray for rain serves as a lesson in loving and caring for each and every Jew. For the comfort of one single Jew trekking across the Euphrates river, we risk the entire country’s economy and the livelihood of millions. An economy that was dependent upon rainfall is shut down, all because of one, single Jew.
Note that this responsibility to be sensitive to every single Jew, this Mitzvah and obligation of Ahavas Yisrael, applied to everyone equally. Whether the farmer was rich or poor or old or young, they put aside their own financial needs and their own anxieties for the sake of another Jew. You may also notice that the Mishnah does not describe this “acharon she’biyisrael.” We have no idea what style Kippah he wore on his head, where he sent his children to school, whether he wore a black hat or not, and even which community he lived in. All of those distinctions were completely irrelevant. This last Jew was a Jew, plain and simple. And because he was still on the road and could be adversely affected by rain, the entire economy came to a halt. Explains the Kuntres Ahavas Yisrael, this is what Ahavas Yisrael means. Unconditional care and love, regardless of how it impacts me and regardless of whether we are different or the same.
In a Chicago Tribune article, “Face masks, the death of sacrifice and the ‘Me Only’ movement,” author Georgia Garvey laments:
Our lives begin with sacrifice. It’s the first gift we’re given, the first things our mothers bestow: life, at their expense. It’s rarer than it used to be that they trade their lives for ours, but that, still, does happen. Even the more mundane sacrifices can be life-changing. Our parents…often sacrifice their mental health, their careers, their sleep, and their relationships.
But sacrifice isn’t as cool as it used to be, especially in the age of coronavirus.
My new hobby in the last few weeks has been watching videos of people throwing temper tantrums when they’re asked to make quite possibly the smallest sacrifice possible: wear a mask.
Liberty is often cited. Someone’s rights are being violated, their wishes aren’t considered, the mask rule is slammed as being un-American, even.
It’s hard to know who, exactly, to blame for this transformation. We’ve devolved from accepting rations and scrap-metal drives during World War II to refusing in 2020 to bear even the slightest inconvenience during a global pandemic.
But when a group of people “buy in” to a sacrifice, throw their full social weight behind it, the sacrifice magnifies in power. It unites them. It creates a new society, one in which all are linked, are interconnected, and any enemy can be vanquished.
When I read this article, I immediately thought of the “acharon she’biyisrael.” Judaism not only encourages, but requires us to sacrifice for one another. It obligates us to inconvenience ourselves, even at great expense, to ensure the comfort and safety of every, single person. That is what it means to have Ahavas Yisrael. To sacrifice for each other unconditionally. To sometimes put others’ needs before our own and to even inconvenience ourselves for each other. Because, like Garvery wrote, that’s what unites us. That’s the source of our achdus and what makes us one community. And that’s what has and always will make us unique and special.
We might be living in Boca and not Israel, and the reason for why we say V’sein tal u’matar l’vracha in modern times might be different. But, when we start davening for rain this Motzei Shabbos, I hope we will all keep in mind the last Jew coming home.