Powerful and needy. Confident and grateful.

Posted by Zvi Hirschfield on September 29, 2013
Topics: Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Reflection

In addition to thinking about keeping all those promises and commitments I made to myself and others that I would take care of “after the holidays, I find myself seeking out an essential message from the month of Tishrei that would carry me through the year.  During the Festival of Sukkot, I found myself thinking a lot about water and rain.  Rain is a central theme of Sukkot.  The Talmud relates that the holding and shaking the four species is in fact an appeal for winter weather that comes with blessing and bounty.  In the days when the Temple stood the Sages taught that there was an obligation to pour water on the sacrificial altar in addition to the normal wine libation.  According to the Mishna, the water was drawn from the Gihon spring at the southern edge of the city, and the water was collected with thousands of people dancing and singing as it was brought to the Temple. I can only imagine how this ritual would focus the attention of the people on the dwindling water supply at the end of a long summer and how great was the need for a wet winter.  In addition to the above, on Shmini Atzeret we begin our petition for rain in our daily prayers.

From a Biblical perspective, rain plays a central role in G-d’s relationship with the Jewish people.  The second paragraph of the Shma relates that if we do not follow the commandments and behave in a righteous manner G-d will “close up the skies and there will be no rain.”  Rain is quite literally a barometer of our relationship with G-d.  (Pardon the pun) From the perspective of the Book of Deuteronomy, rain is more than a reward or a vehicle for punishment.  It is a crucial reminder that our material well-being is inexorably bound up with our ethical performance and spiritual awareness.

“10 For the land, which you go in to possess  is not as the land of Egypt, from where you came out, where you planted seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs; 11 but the land, which you go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water as the rain of heaven comes down; 12 a land which the LORD thy God cares for; the eyes of the LORD thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.” (Deuteronomy 11: 10-12)

On one level, our dependence upon rain serves as a carrot and stick.  Since the Land of Israel has no equivalent of a Nile river that overflows every year, we are deeply aware that we need rain to survive.  If we want to survive in this land we need Divine help, and that support comes with following his rules for a better life.  On a deeper level, however, this depends transcends material need and leads to awareness of relationship and intimacy.  God’s “eyes” are always on us.  Our need makes us aware of His constant Presence.  Our need and dependence creates the opportunity for closeness and gratitude.  Our limitations in providing our own needs create the opportunity to become grateful receivers. From this perspective rain is not only a reward from a demanding ruler, it is a gift from a loving parent. The Rashbam in his commentary on Leviticus appears to echo this theme in his discussion of the connection between sitting in a Sukkah and the time of harvest.  He suggests that the flimsy and partial protection provided by the Sukkah is a corrective for the arrogance and power a good harvest can generate.  In essence he says that we can either feel independent, wealthy, and powerful, or we can acknowledge our limitations and dependence on G-d and feel grateful.  Sukkot is connected to rain because it is at this moment of the year we are challenged to choose acknowledging our limits over affirming our power, and preferring gratitude to self-praise.

It is critical to note, however, that gratitude and limits are not meant to lead to passivity and inaction.  In the desert the Jewish people received Manna, a spoon to mouth type of experience that emphasized G-d’s nurturing care of the Jewish people and our powerlessness to care for ourselves in the Wilderness. When we entered the Land of Israel, we matured.” The manna ceased on the next day, after they had eaten of the produce of the land. The children of Israel didn’t have manna anymore; but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.” (Joshua 5:12) Once we enter the Land of Israel we are challenged to walk a difficult tightrope.  On the one hand we must be self-sufficient farmers and workers who provide for ourselves using all the physical strength and intellectual acumen at our disposal.  On the other hand, our need for rain serves as a constant reminder of both our limits and our need for a nurturing and caring Divine Presence.  Powerful and needy.  Confident and grateful.

The challenge of feeling both confidently strong and gratefully dependent as reflected in the gift of rain may also be part of the reason the Rabbis compare Torah to water.  Some midrashim emphasize the completely divine nature of Torah.  The Torah is perfect and complete.  All we have to do is receive it. “The Sages who were to rise in each generation each one of them also received at sinai the wisdom he was to utter.” (Exodus Rabbah 28:6)

Other midrashim emphasize that Torah only truly becomes Torah when we interpret it as human readers.  We take the written Torah as raw material and transform it into something better. “When the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel  He gave it as wgeat to be turned into flour and flax to be turned into cloth for garments. (Derech eretz Zuta  2)

As opposed to seeing these approaches as contradictory, I believe they embrace the same paradox illustrated above.  Torah is rainwater. Torah should fill us with a sense of appreciation for the divine and instill in us a profound humility and awareness of our limits as human beings.  On the other hand, Toah is an invitation to us to actualize our capacities as human thinkers, readers, and legislators.  We are challenged by Torah to be both grateful receivers and active partners.

I hope we all emerge from this holiday season with the capacity to feel both humble and empowered.  I believe that this challenging combination allows us to enjoy the blessing of profound gratitude with the sense of our capacity to create, build, and renew.

About Zvi Hirschfield

Zvi teaches Talmud, Halakha and Jewish Thought at Pardes. In addition Zvi is a faculty member of the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators and has been training and mentoring Jewish Educators for over ten years in Tefilah in educational settings; critical issues in modern Jewish thought; and Israel education. Click here to read more.

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