This past Shabbat afternoon, while I was taking my customary Shabbat afternoon nap, I was awakened by the rolling sound of thunder. My first thought was of the blessing for thunder: Baruch ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam she’kocho ugvurato maleh olam. (Blessed are You, God, King of the universe, for His strength and power fill the world.)
Once I was more fully awake, I realized that it was also raining.
If you live outside of Israel, this might not seem the least bit worth of comment. But this was early, unexpected rain, and therefore especially joyful.
In Israel, we have an unusual relationship with rain. For many months of the year, basically the six months from after Passover until after Sukkot, it doesn’t rain in Israel. At all.
That means all the rain we’re going to get, all the rain we need to fill Israel’s aquifers and Lake Kinneret, one of Israel’s major sources of water, falls in the winter months, usually beginning after Sukkot.
I learned firsthand, some years ago, just howreliable this pattern is. We had bought our first apartment in Israel but had not yet furnished it. A friend was accumulating second-hand items, one at a time, for weeks before we arrived. A couch here. A fridge and a bed there.
I remember asking her where she was storing these items, knowing that she certainly didn’t have room for them in her home. “We’re keeping them in our yard until we can move them into your apartment,” she said.
“But,” I asked in puzzlement. “What happens if it rains?”
“No worries. It never rains in Israel during the summer,” she explained.
That was my introduction to this unusual weather pattern.
Ah, but in the winter, rain is a welcome blessing. Israeli friends post about it with glee on Facebook. “It’s raining in Beersheva!” “The rain has begun in Jerusalem!” “I needed an umbrella in Haifa for this first time this season!” People post about the status of Lake Kinneret, following the water level stats like a major league sports game.
Strawberries are a winter fruit in Israel and all the fruits and vegetables are cheaper and more amazing during the rainy season. My favorite yellow peppers are thin and tough in the summer. During the winter, they are fat and sweet.
Fittingly, the Torah is compared to water. Life cannot be sustained without water. Just as water is crucial for physical life, Torah is crucial for a robust spiritual life.
Similarly, for the Jewish people, Torah is vital to our survival. A Jewish community without Torah cannot sustain itself. Thus, we have a Jewish tradition that three days should not pass without the Jewish people hearing words of Torah. Our rabbis teach that this tradition is derived from a verse in Exodus:
“They traveled for three days in the desert without finding any water.” (Exodus 15:22)
Moses understood that the people’s thirst for water was not exclusively literal. Rather it was the consequence of going three days in a row, during their journey in the wilderness, without hearing words of Torah. In response to this, Moses established the practice of reading from the Torah three times a week, including Shabbat.
In traditional synagogues, this is fulfilled by public readings from a Torah scroll every Monday, Thursday and Shabbat. Since they include a Torah reading (albeit a briefer one than on Shabbat), Mondays and Thursdays are popular days for holding bar mitzvahs in Israel, especially at the Kotel, where the bar mitzvah boy is often accompanied by a parade of hand drummers, banging out joyful music.
In Israel, we greet the winter rains with the same joy as a bar mitzvah, reminding one another that, along with our rain boots and umbrellas, we are witnessing nothing short of gishmei bracha – the blessing of rain.
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