Praying for Rain

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by Rabbi Isaac S. Roussel - Congregation Zera Avraham, Ann Arbor, Michigan

We tend to think of the High Holy Days as its own unit, and that is true. But really it is a distinct segment of a whole season that begins with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, and ends with Sukkot.

Traditionally, every day during Elul, people recite Psalm 27. It expresses our desire to be in deep communion and closeness to Hashem. Verse 4 says “Achat sha’alti me’et Adonai . . . One thing I ask of the Lord and this is what I desire, to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life.” And the following verse contains God’s response, “He will surely give me shelter . . . he will hide me in his home.” The word “shelter” here is sukkah. Thus the ultimate goal of this whole season is to dwell with Hashem in his sukkah. This brings us joy.

But we must have done the hard work of Heshbon ha-Nefesh, self-introspection, and Teshuvah, repentance, during the Ten Days of Awe before we get there.

In Parashat Haazinu, we have a song that Moses sings to the people on his last day on earth. One of the opening verses is, “My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass” (Deut. 32:2). Rashi says that this points to Torah as the life-giving rain. But Rashbam points out that the word used for drip (ya’arof) can also mean “break.” He likens it to the egla arufah, the calf that has its neck broken to atone for an unsolved murder. (The word has the sense of falling down and so it also came to be used for bending something down to break it.) Rashbam, therefore, considers Torah as something that breaks us open, preparing us to receive the rain. This is similar to another comment that Rashi makes on this passage. He states that just as storm winds strengthen the grasses, so too Torah strengthens us as it challenges us.

This is what we must go through during the Ten Days to get to the sukkah. We must let the liturgy and the Torah readings break us open. It is a time when we look deep inside ourselves and ask God to reveal any hidden sins in our lives. How have we hardened our hearts towards God or others? We allow the “storm winds” to batter us because we know that it will strengthen us and bring us new life and new growth.

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We resume praying for rain at Sukkot. Having done the hard work of “breaking open” during the Days of Awe, let us sit and soak in the life-giving rains of Torah and God’s blessings. The sukkah must have at least three walls. We can envision the walls of the sukkah as the body and arms of God embracing us as we dwell there. May we truly find the desire of our heart to dwell in the house of Adonai, and to be hidden in his home. May we experience Hashem’s forgiveness and inner healing. May we all find new growth in our relationship with God and others in this upcoming year.

Hag Sameach—a joyous Sukkot!