What do you think of when you think of fire or water? Personally, water brings to mind the pitter patter of raindrops on a window pane. Or sloshing through puddles (the child in me is still alive…). Or misty rainbows in the sky. If it’s summer, I envision a gleaming swimming pool. Fire also brings up visions of positive, fun-filled activities: Shabbos and Chanukah candles, roasted marshmallows and bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer. But fire and water are also powerful, primal forces to be reckoned with. Beautiful, compelling and captivating, they can also be overwhelming and destructive.
A month ago, Israel was ablaze. The fires began with brushfires, a natural occurrence in an unusually dry, windy season, and were magnified a thousand-fold by the malicious, premeditated deeds of men. The hand of Nature leads us to prayer and supplication; man’s evil produces feelings of rage and revenge. And much pain.
The Holy Land is a feeling, living entity. It responds not only to hard work and wise care, but to the spiritual state of its people. Like a loving parent, the land embraces her children and they embrace her in turn. That is why, when we see the burnt forests so lovingly planted (remember the “leaves” Jewish children the world over purchased to plant Jewish National Fund trees?), when we see houses and fields turned into ghostly skeletons, when the land is colored in ash grey instead of rich, growing green, we weep. We are profoundly grateful that despite the evacuation of sixty thousand people in Haifa and many hundreds elsewhere, the fires did not claim a single life. This was another awesome miracle from a merciful God. And there is no doubt, that with His help, the fields and forests will be replanted and the homes rebuilt. Hopefully, the people who lived in them will recoup and quickly recover from the trauma and move forward. Am Yisrael in its homeland is a resilient, creative, determined nation. But for the moment, we weep, even as we roll up our national sleeves and get to work.
It was a long, dry winter this year in the Holy Land. Had the annual rains come on time, the fires would not have been so destructive. But by the middle of Kislev (December), there was only one proper rainfall. “Proper” means a good, drenching rain that saturates the dry, sun-parched ground and leaves it thoroughly soaked, not just sprinkled with raindrops that quickly evaporate, leaving barely a whiff of refreshing rain-scent in the air. “Proper” means sufficient rain to provide snowmelt from Mt. Chermon to fill the Banias, Chatzbani and Dan rivers; it means rain from the sky to fill the wadis, streams and subterranean wells across the country. And, of course, rain to fill the Kinneret, our national harp-shaped jewel, whose waters flow into the Jordan River and down to the Dead Sea.
Hopefully, by the time your read this, the weather will have changed although, for Eretz Yisrael, gishmei beracha – rains of blessings – must also be g’shamim b’itam – rains which come in their proper time. Not too soon, not too late. Wheat and barley, the biblical staples of life, are planted in the autumn and must be watered by the winter rains in order to ripen on time for the spring harvest. The Torah tells us: And I will bring your rains in their proper seasons and the Land shall give forth its produce and the trees shall give their fruit (Vayikra 26,4). But only if the rains come “in their proper seasons.”
Like Choni HaM’agel, we pray not only for rain in the proper season, but also in proper measure, for water can be a curse as well as a blessing. Think storms and raging floods inundating the land. Or wild rivers sweeping away everything in their path. Too much of a good thing is… well… too much. Personally, I love to sit on the shore of the ocean and watch the waves. It’s humbling. And awesome. But water, like fire, can be devastating.
Nonetheless, in Israel, water, especially in the form of rain, is always welcome. It rains the night of a wedding? A sign of blessing for the new couple. It rains during a funeral? The Heavens are mourning with you. You just washed your windows? You may sigh for a moment but then you shake your head. No problem. The rain will clean away any residual dust and it will only take a minute to wipe the windows clean again. Rain is precious. Better a little more than a little less.
We know, of course, about the natural (i.e., miraculous!) recycling of water in the world. Vapor from the earth’s moisture evaporates and condenses into clouds which release water in the form of precipitation. Neighboring Egypt depends on the annual overflow from the Nile for its water, but the Torah stresses that we here in Israel receive our rain directly from the Heavens. I haven’t thoroughly researched the subject, but it seems to me that when the rain allotted to the Holy Land passes the Gates of Heaven, it absorbs rays of Divine Light, something akin to a celestial embrace. Thus hallowed and purified, the raindrops become suitable carriers of life-giving blessings for G-d’s People and His Land.
Both water and fire were essential elements in the service in the Batei Mikdash. When the third Bayit is rebuilt, water for the altar will again be drawn from the depths of the Shiloach spring outside the city of Jerusalem, and a flame on the altar will again ascend to the Heavens to serve as a glowing beacon of light from Zion to the world.
May both our fire and our water be only livracha… blessed.