2014-10-15 / Religion Column

Shemini Atzeret: ‘For a blessing and not for a curse’

RABBI LEWIS J. ERON
Community Chaplain

On the festival of Shemini Atzeret, Eighth Day of Assembly, which immediately follows Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, Jews throughout the world celebrate our historical connection to the Land of Israel by praying for rain to fall in our ancestral homeland. From Shemini Atzeret in the fall until Pesach in the spring we insert a verse in the second blessing of the Tefilah, the cycle of blessings that form the heart of our services, for the gift of rain. The theme of that blessing is God’s life-restoring power. So, for our ancestors this was the appropriate place to pray for the winter rains, which brought life back to the Land of Israel, parched dry by the long hot summers.

Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia where the regular annual flooding of the river valleys insured the fertility of the land, the land of Israel depended on the less predictable rains. Our ancestors related rain in its due season with their covenantal relationship with God. Disobedience of the covenantal injunctions to be loyal to God and supportive of each other could lead to the withholding of rain and a period of hunger and dearth. Therefore, they associated their prayers for rain with the penitential theme of the High Holidays, the time in which Jews recommit themselves to our tradition—its values, practices and insights.

In the Ashkenazi tradition, we introduce the prayers for rain with a piyyut, a religious poem, by the great poet Eliezer Kallir, called “Geshem—Rain.” In this poem, the poet calls upon God to recall the loyalty of our ancestors and grace us, on their behalf, with the gift of rain. At the end of the poem and after the recitation of the additional verse which will be part of our Tefilah for the next six months— “For You are the Eternal One, our God, who causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend”—we add a short litany:

For a blessing and not for a curse. Amen.

For life and not for death. Amen.

For plenty and not for famine. Amen.

These three lines could be a reflection on the unpredictably of nature. Although rain is necessary; too much rain in the wrong place at the wrong time can be a disaster. Our ancestors were aware of the danger from flash floods in the wilderness, drenching rains that wash away seeds, late rains that rot standing grain, and tempests that sink ships and destroy buildings. Rain could also be a hindrance to commerce and an inconvenience for pilgrims. Too little or too much rain; rain too early or too late; could be a sign of Divine displeasure.

However, these lines could reflect the unreliability of human nature and how we use and, all too often, misuse the blessings we receive. While life requires that our basic needs be met, material wealth does not guarantee a meaningful and purposeful life. Jewish ethical teachings from the Bible on warn us of the spiritual challenges posed by prosperity— selfishness arrogance, and indulgence. To counter them, our tradition enjoins us, as individuals and as a community, to cultivate the middot (“qualities”) of gratitude, humility, and responsibility.

With Shemini Atzeret, we bring our High Holiday season to a close. Our focus over the last few weeks has been on our moral and spiritual development. While we have celebrated the blessings of our world, we have sought to reconnect with creation’s ethical and spiritual foundations, which give mean- ing and significance to our lives. It is fitting, therefore, that we end the poem “Geshem” not with a prayer for the gift of rain so that we may be prosper but for the gift of wisdom so that we may employ our blessings for good. To reinforce this lesson, we dedicate the second day of Shemini Atzeret, which we call Simchat Torah, as our celebra- tion of the Torah as our people’s overflowing source of this lifeenhancing wisdom. .

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