Friday, October 15, 2010

The Prayer for Rain: Still Relevant?

The location: The Spolter home, West Hartford, CT
The date: August, 1999, Shabbat morning, around 7:00am
The situation: Rena is nine months pregnant with the child that would be Bezalel, and labor pains have begun in earnest.

This being our second child, I was calm and collected. As soon as we decided that it was time, I picked up the phone and called the cab company.
"Hi, we're having a baby, and I need a cab to get to the hospital." That's when things started to get a little dicey.
"OK," said the operator. "I should have someone available to come out to you in about forty-five minutes." That didn't seem like such a good idea.
"Forty five minutes?! My wife is in labor!"
Sadly, the cab company operator was not in a position to conjure up a cab for me, as there weren't a huge number of cabs floating around the sleepy town of West Hartford on a Saturday morning. I started getting nervous, and hung up the phone.
I wandered outside, probably hoping that I could flag down a passing cab. No, it didn't make sense. We did not live on Broadway in Manhattan. But what else could I do? It was then that Linda, our neighbor, noticed me. (She was "walking" the dog in her backyard.)
"Is it time?" She was well aware of Rena's condition. "Is there anything we can do?"
Actually, there was. We needed a ride. Linda was happy to wake up Chuck, her husband, who drove us to the hospital in our car, which he then drove back home.
Linda and Chuck were wonderful neighbors. We didn't know them that well, but we did know that they were devout Catholics, and every so often we'd discuss light theology. That Shabbat morning, the talk turned to original sin and epidurals.
Chuck and I wondered aloud about how we were to understand the meaning of בעצב תלדי בנים - "With pain you shall bear sons," (Chava's sin for eating from the forbidden fruit), in light of the modern development of epidurals and relatively pain-free childbirth. Were we in some way escaping Divine will by bearing children without pain?
Rena was having none of it. Sitting in the back of the car enduring contractions of ever-increasing frequency and intensity, she had heard enough theology for one childbirth: "Will you guys shut up and just get me to the hospital?!"
The rest of the ride was considerably quieter.

I remember this story as we once again begin reciting the phrase ותן טל ומטר לברכה during Shemonah Esreh.
Here in Israel we begin praying for rain in earnest on the 7th of Cheshvan. Jews in the Diaspora wait to make the change until December 4th, something I never quite fully comprehended. Something about the rain in Babylonia.
Here we really need the rain. It's a matter of livelihood, economics, and prosperity. We need the water to plant the fields to drive the economic engine of Israel (and feed the population, although around here they've been planting cotton lately.) Rain is so critical to survival that it plays a prominent role in the Shema. If we follow the commandments, God promises that, ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו - "and I will give the rain of your land in its proper time." The Torah describes the Land of Israel in terms of its dependence on the Divine desire to produce rain.

כִּי הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא, אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם: אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ בְרַגְלְךָ כְּגַן הַיָּרָק. יא וְהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--אֶרֶץ הָרִים, וּבְקָעֹת; לִמְטַר הַשָּׁמַיִם, תִּשְׁתֶּה-מָּיִם. יב אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ: תָּמִיד, עֵינֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ--מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה, וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה
For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou didst sow thy seed, and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down; a land which the LORD thy God careth 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.
God designed the Land of Israel specifically to need rain; He wants us to pray for the rain, to yearn for His benevolence and sustenance and support. The rain forms a critical part of the religious and spritual structure of life in Israel.
Exept now, does it really?
Sure, right this moment, we need the rain. But Israel has rightfully taken critical measures to ensure that the Jewish State's water needs will be met for the forseeable future. In an article in this week's B'sheva newspaper, Professor Uri Shani, the current and outgoing head of Israel's water authority says that in just 3-4 years, we'll see a significant change in Israel's water situation, which should prevent crises with regard to water in Israel, as major desalination processing plants come online.
Clearly, this is an amazing, critical development, which provides the State with needed water, security and self-reliance. And I'm also not naive nor dismissive of the power of, and need for prayer. We clearly still need the rain, and always will.
But as our ability to provide for our water needs grows, does our dependence upon God in some way wane? Are we somehow fundamentally altering our relationship to God and the need for rain by using technology to provide for ourselves?
In truth, I don't think so. We turn to God for so many different needs - safety, security, health, economic prosperity - the list is endless.
But will we still pray for rain when we can produce all the water we need on our own? I don't know.