Sermon: Shabbat Ekev – Rain and Pain

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 8 August 2018

A couple of weeks ago I put a post on the Alyth Facebook page in protest against the arrest of a Progressive Rabbi in Israel who had performed a wedding not under the authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.   Like many of my colleagues around the world I said that I am proud to officiate at weddings without needing the Israeli Chief Rabbi’s hescher.  Underneath there were photos of Chuppot which I have been proud to perform including two beautiful outdoor weddings – one that took place in a forest clearing and one in the Hertfordshire countryside in a field.   Both were a very rare thing for me – an outdoor wedding in the UK which does not get rained off.

Last week’s lovely Alyth wedding between Viv Cohen and Ben Papier was unfortunately more the norm.  Four weeks of blazing sunshine and then last Sunday of course it rained all day so what was meant to be outside in the gardens of a beautiful manor house in Sussex ended up in a marquee.  Ben and Viv got married and it was a beautiful occasion but we all got very wet.

I have often been asked when the rain clouds are gathering over someone’s summer simcha, only half-jokingly, if there are Jewish prayers for sunshine that we can say. Sadly in our tradition there are not.

Ours is a religion with its roots firmly in the middle east, countries where the sun can be taken for granted but where the difference between plenty and suffering is dependent on rainfall at appropriate times. So traditional Jewish weather prayers are for rain — and even for dew, so that there should be some moisture if the rain should fail.

One of the most important of these is the tal u’matar prayer inserted in daily services between Simchat Torah and Pesach only — acknowledging the heavenly provision of rain and dew.    We also add in the the Atah Gibor prayer in every Amidah, our central prayer, the plea for wind and rain in winter and for dew in summer.

The other prominent prayer concerning rain is the prayer which formed the bulk of our Torah portion this morning — which serves Jews as the second paragraph of a three paragraph Shema.  You can find it on page 214 of our Siddur. The essential doctrine which it asserts is that rainfall and agricultural success is available at the direct intervention of God. It will be provided if we are good and withdrawn if we are not.

To understand how this doctrine developed in Judaism you need to know a little of the geography of the land of Israel. Agriculture in Israel is essentially dependent on local rainfall on local hills, flowing through tiny rivulets or the relatively narrow Jordan river. Israel does not contain the huge languid rivers of Egypt — the Nile, controlled by rainfall hundreds if not thousands of miles from the farming felaheen of the Nile Delta, nor the Tigris and Euphrates that flowed through the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, fed also by rainfall hundreds of miles away from the major farming areas. Remembering the words of a hymn that we sung with much gusto at my primary school the situation in Israel is and was “we plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand!”

So, assuming the Book of Deuteronomy to be the work of a society already long settled in the Land of Israel as modern biblical scholars do, when the rain failed and agriculture with it, what was more natural than for the Israelites to blame themselves. God gives us rain when we do the right thing, and when it doesn’t come then it is our fault. Then a combination of right behaviour and appropriate worship should do the trick and return the rain to the land. If this doesn’t work then we should understand that we are not trying hard enough.

That too is the essential message behind the Torah stories of Noah, Korach and of the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Natural disaster? Flood, earthquake, firestorm? Your fault. You were wicked, you were rebellious and now look what you brought upon yourself. It’s not so tough to thank Divine benevolence for nature turning out just the way we would like it — to say a prayer upon a sunny perfect day, to feel God in welcome rain — but the inevitable flipside of this — that when it doesn’t turn out the way you want it it is God’s punishment — is very tough indeed and really both are quite irrational, given our scientific knowledge about the way the world’s weather systems and geological phenomena work. That is essentially why the second paragraph of the Shema was not part of Reform services, presented for us all to say, for many decades.

It’s not just un-scientific.   To understand God as clerk of the weather also suggests that God is horribly unaware of the consequences of His or Her actions. Thousands, millions perish every decade from nature gone awry — from drought and other natural disasters. The doctrine of a rain for good behaviour kind of God is one which would clearly sweep away the righteous with the wicked and the second paragraph of the Shema would suggest that there must be justice to the pain that this causes, that every time something awful happens it is because of the person’s ill dongs.

It’s not so difficult to understand where God is when a good person suffers at the hand of another person with evil intent. It is an inevitable consequence of our having free will as human beings that we can misuse this free will and oppress each other. We are not automatons operating as God’s puppets rather as it has often been understood by Jewish philosophers we are more akin to God’s hands.

Judaism understands that it is for us to choose the way that we will live, God providing the guidance but us taking our own choice of action. Except in the wilder reaches of fundamentalist Judaism, where they attempt to blame the victims, it means that the evil of the Holocaust has to remain the responsibility of the Nazis, those who supported them, a society and a world order which failed to effectively oppose them effectively until it was too late for humanity.

But this doesn’t work for the working of natural forces which are not in the hands of humanity — when people die of currently unpreventable diseases or in floods or fire, or when one tries to find some explanation why person x rather than person y was the victim of some outrage. My goodness it must be easy to lose any concept of God’s existence let alone any sense of Divine justice in such circumstances and I know that in Moses’ family the tragedy of Ben’s death as a young boy was the most awful trial.

But surely then the idea of God should have disintegrated as soon as the first person not to reach a ripe old age died, many millennia ago. As soon as it turned out that not everybody was going to reach their three score years and ten religion should have been untenable.

So why has religion lasted? Why is God still there for so many? As far as I can understand it is because the world, as we experience it in our lives but also as it is set up in our scriptures, and in the scriptures of other religions is established from the start as a world where there will be pain for some, more suffering for others and where in Rabbi Yannai’s words in Avot (4:15) the Sayings of the Sages can say “It does not lie within our power to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous”. Whilst the Noah story might explain the flood as the death of the unrighteous, even in the same chapters of the Torah there is no explanation offered for why Noah’s father Lamech did not reach the ripe old age of Methusulah. They just died at different ages.  That is the way of the world.

Religion did not die off because it is actually a mechanism for dealing with the inevitable unfairness and injustices of the world – through community, through blaming God even as a catharsis, through expecting better of humanity, sometimes even through yissurim shel ahavah, the idea that a certain amount of trial in life is essential for human growth such as Rabbi Albert Friedlander sees illustrated in the Torah story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. What is certainly not required in Judaism is a dumb acceptance that suffering is fair.

For us it is the way of the world that sometimes the rain will fail, good people will be lost to disaster, a decent person will be the victim of an accident. Our challenge is to live with this reality with dignity — yet still making the most of our lives, doing our work towards the messianic age of perfection, taking the guidance of our religion into living a good life, being angry when the righteous suffer and correcting what we can. But yet recognising that we will never understand it all.

I have seen too many times the tragedy of a person throwing off the benefits that a life lived in religious community can bring when tragedy strikes. They kill God in themselves because that God did not seem to do the right thing by them or their loved one. It’s such a shame when I just don’t believe that our Judaism ever tried to preach a message that everything will turn out right in your life it you do x, y and z. Such has never been the way of the world.

*Life is unpredictable.  It is not under our control however deeply we pray or are committed to doing mitzvot.  Like the weather at an English wedding, we are not in control.

But what is always under our control is our power to support each other, whatever the circumstances.

*  These final two short paragraphs were not part of the sermon as delivered by were suggested by a member of Alyth who heard it.