While we started praising HaShem as the giver of rain on Shemini Atzeret, we only start requesting rain on Motza’ei Shabbat, the eve of the seventh of Cheshvan. The reason is that the pilgrims who come to Yerushalayim for Sukkot need about two weeks to get home, and it would be inconsiderate to pray for rain while they are still on the road.
Of course today there are no pilgrims, and even if there were, they would be traveling in closed motor vehicles protected from the rain. One might think that in the time of the Temple refraining from praying for rain until Cheshvan carried a message of consideration, but today when there are no pilgrims this custom has lost its ethical meaning.
In reality, in the time of the Temple this custom carried a message of consideration, but today the custom has a double meaning – the ethical message remains, and an historical message has been added. In the time of the Temple, one who asked why there is a delay in requesting rain would have learned an important lesson – we have consideration for the pilgrims. Someone who asks the question today receives the same lesson, plus an additional one since we explain to him the former glory of Israel in the time when the Temple stood and pilgrimages were made three times a year.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE DIASPORA
In the Diaspora, the prayer for rain begins only on December 5! The reason is that this is when the rainy season begins in Bavel (modern-day Iraq). While today very few Jews live in Bavel, the educational message of this practice is that our current world-wide exile is really just a chronological and geographical extension of the original Babylonian exile, which encompassed almost the entire nation.
Jewish exile has many dimensions. At one level, it is a punishment for sin – on the whole, our life has been good in the land of Israel, and the hardships and unfamiliarity of exile are an affliction. At another level, it is a natural consequence of sin, just as illness occurs naturally to a person who abuses his health. The Land of Israel can not endure sin, and it expels those who are not spiritually worthy of the Holy Land. Finally, it is a remedy for sin. Exile is meant to repair those shortcomings which made us unfit for dwelling the Eretz Yisrael, and hence prepare us for repatriation.
Let us see how this outlook applies to the Babylonian exile.
Originally, we Jews were a prophetic people, a nation with an ongoing experience of communication with G-d. At the Red Sea and at Mount Sinai, every member of our people experienced prophecy (Yalkut Shimoni Beshalach 246); afterwards, our many prophets (Megilla 14a) were constant leaders and guides in matters large and small, from deciding whether to make war to locating lost objects.
This spiritual peak of experiencing G-d’s presence naturally led to an experiential approach to religion. This approach involves a terrible danger, because idolatry also provides an exhilarating spiritual experience – a polluted one – and it became a terrible temptation for the Jewish people. The gemara (Sanhedrin 64a) relates that when the sages of the second Temple killed the idolatrous urge, a fiery lion fled from the Inner Sanctum of the Temple! The animating spirit of Divine service is burning and fierce like a fiery lion, but this same spirit can feed the idolatrous urge as well.
In this state of confusion, it was necessary to separate ourselves from the religious experience and establish our connection to God on firm and unyielding principles. This occurred in Bavel, the birthplace of the Babylonian Talmud.
Our sages compare the Talmud of Bavel to “sitting in darkness” (Sanhedrin 24a). This analogy appears in the Babylonian Talmud itself! A blind person, or one sitting in darkness, can not get about by seeing. He needs to carefully measure every aspect of his surroundings. He is neither fooled by illusions nor distracted by decorations. Likewise, the Babylonian Talmud places the entire Torah on the basis of careful definitions and measurements. This was a necessary supplement to the experiential aspect of Torah, and as a result it is the Babylonian Talmud which became the authoritative source of law for Judaism everywhere – even in Israel.
So our mentions of rain in the Amida prayer are a reminder that our ideal state in the land of Israel is the time when the Temple existed and pilgrims came from far and wide for the holidays; and that our ideal state in the diaspora is devotion to Torah study and elucidating the unchanging principles of our religion. Only this foundation of firm principle will enable us to experience G-d’s presence without going astray.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.