The keys to rain, work, resurrection and birth are in the hands of God, not man.
Indeed, as the Tur points out, the Hebrew word for key, mafteach, stands for matar, rain; parnassah, sustenance; techiat hameitim, resurrection; and chayah, childbirth. Rain and parnassah is one and the same thing, for the world’s sustenance is provided through rain.
On Shemini Atzeret, God decides how successful we will be in terms of our livelihood in the coming year and how much rain will fall.Poverty is something that will always remain with us. The only question is, who will be poor in the coming year? Of course, we must try our hardest to make a living, but ultimately it is not up to us. It is His decision. So what can we do to influence the Boss?
We can pray for rain. In the Mussaf prayer on Shemini Atzeret, we mention God’s powers as a rainmaker by reciting, in the blessing of resurrection, the words Mashiv haruach u’morid hageshem, God makes the wind blow and the rain come down. This is because rain, like techiat hameitim, has the power to revive. Seeds planted in the earth will come to life like the dead themselves.
The prayer of Mashiv haruach u’morid hageshem mentions God’s rainmaking powers but it is not an immediate request for rain. The prayer of Veten tal u’matar, give us dew and rain, inserted in the berachah of Bareich Aleinu in the Amidah, is a request for immediate rain. In Israel, one begins to recite the Veten tal u’matar request for rain fifteen days following Shemini Atzeret, so that pilgrims who visited Jerusalem for Sukkot could reach home before the rain swelled the rivers and made them impassable. Low-lying lands like Babylonia needed rain later in the year and therefore residents of such lands recite Veten tal u’matar sixty days following the equinox, which is on the fifth of December.
Because rain during the first seven days of Sukkot is considered divine rejection of the mitzvah of sukkah, we postpone the prayers for rain until Shemini Atzeret, when the Torah no longer commands us to sit in a sukkah. According to the Aruch Hashulchan, geshem is the rain in the sky whereas matar is the rain on the ground.The prayers of Mashiv harauch and Veten tal u’matar are recited in the Amidah until the Mussaf prayer on the first day of Pesach, which occurs in springtime, when rain is no longer required.
Of course, God ultimately decides whether and when the rain and the parnassah will come and there is no guarantee that our request for timely, plentiful and beneficial rain will be granted. There may be no rain, or not enough rain to fill the cisterns and wells, or there may be too much rain with damaging effects. But we must pray for it and we must apply as much pressure on God as possible. After all, we are placed on this earth to perform His mitzvot and we have the right to ask for the tools of the trade.
The Talmud tells us that if rain does not fall by the seventeenth day of the month of Mar Cheshvan – that is, ten days after it is needed in Israel – the rabbis of old declared public fasts that escalated in duration, frequency and severity. If the month of Adar arrived and the rains still had not come, the Jews would resort to a special form of blackmail. They would send an emissary to request rain whom God could not refuse. Such an emissary was Choni Hame’agel, Choni the circle maker, who was known for his extreme piety and understanding of the Torah. Choni would draw a circle around him and stand in the middle of it praying for rain, warning God that he would not step out until the rains came. When they came in scattered drops, he urged God for more. When the sky opened up with torrential rains, he asked God for less, until it was just right. Though Choni saved the people, Shimon Ben Shetach criticized him for forcing God’s hand. “Were you not Choni, I would pronounce a ban on you. But what shall I do, for you misbehave toward God and yet he does what you want.”
Every generation has a Choni whom God will not turn down, but we don’t always know who that person is. Rav, the great amorah, visited a community that was afflicted with drought. He declared a fast and prayed for rain, but none came. Then an old Jew stood up, approached the prayer stand and prayed for rain. Rain came in an instant. “What do you do that your prayers are answered so quickly?” asked Rav. “I am a teacher of small children and I teach the children of the poor as well as the rich. I take nothing from those who cannot afford to pay me” replied the old man.
Rabbi Beroka once met Elijah the prophet in the market place of Bei Lefet. “Is there any one here who has a place in the world to come?” Rabbi Beroka asked Elijah. “Yes,” said Elijah, “that man going by wearing black shoes and no tzitzit.” Rabbi Beroka ran after the man.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“I am a jail guard,” replied the man. “I make sure that no harm befalls the young girls who are incarcerated.”
“Why do you not wear tzizit?” asked Rabbi Beroka.
“Because I move incognito among gentiles and whenever I overhear a decree that is bad for the Jews, I report back to the rabbis.”
According to the halacha, an individual may not pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret. One must wait for the shaliach tzibbur to engage the entire community in the prayer for rain. Perhaps the reason for this is because nobody knows who the Choni among us is. So we all pray together in the hope that somebody so close to God that He cannot refuse him will save us all. Such people may go unrecognized, but they seem to emerge from the ranks of those who have compassion and are God’s partners in sharing limited resources with others.Raphael Grunfeld
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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