Thursday, October 12, 2017

Praying for Rain

In the Jewish calendar, today, the 22nd day of the 7th month (Tishri) is the festival of Shemini Atzeret. It closes the week-long festival of Sukkot (one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals and the one which is widely thought to have been the biggest in Jesus’ time). The celebration of Sukkot is prescribed in Levitius 23:33-36. That final verse also prescribes a “solemn assembly” or “holy convocation” on the eight day, Shemini Atzeret. So Shemini Atzeret is simultaneously the eighth day of Sukkot but also a separate festival with its own identity. On this day, the prayer for rain is recited – for the first time since Passover. It is recited daily during the Israeli rainy season. As a Jewish friend explained to me years ago, it doesn’t rain in Israel in the summer, so there is no point praying for rain then. But, during the autumn-winter rainy season (from Sukkot to Pesach), it is important that there be enough rain. Hence the liturgical prayer for rain, then – and only then.

I have been thinking about this devout custom of praying for a successful rainy season while watching the horrifying scenes of the wildfires in California. In the 1990s, whenever I would visit my family in California for New Year's or for President's Day weekend, it would rain - a lot. That was what it was supposed to do, of course, during the rainy season. In recent years, however, thanks to climate change, California has suffered from drought and has experienced much less winter rain. The winter rains - and especially the snowfall in the mountains - are essential to California's summer water supply, no less than the winter rains were in ancient Israel. And a wet, rainy fall would be a help to those fighting the late-season wildfires.

In the Roman liturgy, we no longer celebrate Rogation processions and recite orationes imperatae. There still is a Votive Mass "For Rain," although I have to wonder how often it is actually celebrated. Perhaps as part of rediscovering our dependence on the natural world, we need to retrieve time-honored religious traditions, like praying for rain (and snow) in winter. What devout Jews still faithfully do might well serve as an admirable model for the rest of us.

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