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Rain, the weather's fine

A really interesting idea from Rabbi Avie Schreiber, in an essay called The Missing Holiday - A Novel look at Shemini Atzeret.

Let’s start with Sukkot—I guess I haven’t really talked about the holiday much here on this Tohu Bohu. It’s an excellent holiday, and I suspect under-celebrated among American Jews and nearly unknown among American non-Jews. Tho’ I’m just guessing there. Gentle Readers, do you know about Sukkot? Do you observe it? Does it mean anything to you at all?

Just in case, here are the basics: The holiday is the Festival of Booths, commemorating the time we spent in the wilderness, between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance into Canaan. To remember that time, we are commanded (in Leviticus 23) to construct and live for eight days in Sukkot, or booths, or sheds, or whatever. There are a lot of rules about what constitutes a kosher sukkah (the singular form of the word), but in general it must be temporary and it must be at least somewhat open to the sky and the outside. And there are rules for what it means to live in them—I think it is unusual for American Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews to sleep in the sukkah, but we like to eat meals in there whenever the weather permits.

The weather! Now I’m getting close to the point. You didn’t believe that I had a point, did you?

So. You are supposed to live in the sukkah for a week, but you are also supposed to know enough to come in out of the rain. You aren’t supposed to just let the rain wash away your dinner. The Sages of blessed memory have a term, in fact, for the person who stubbornly stays in the sukkah eating even when it’s raining: they call such a person an idiot. Rain on Sukkot! Such a sadness. Rabbi Schreiber says “We depend on a lack of rain in order to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot properly.” Rain on Sukkot! Or even snow—The holiday’s early this year, but next year it doesn’t end until mid-October, and a snow flurry or two would not be unheard of. Some of the Rabbis have taught that rain on Sukkot is a Divine punishment for some sort of transgression of the community. There’s a story about a servant and a master and a pitcher of water thrown in the face… anyway, rain on Sukkot: bad.

The eighth and final day of Sukkot, though, is a holiday in its own right, the eighth assembly or Shmini Atzeret, the most prominent feature of which is the prayer for rain. It’s also the moment when we switch, in the mention of weather in the daily prayer, from the summer in which we thank the Divine morid hatal, who gives life-giving dew, to the winter in which we thank the Divine mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-gashem who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall. Rain on Sukkot: bad! …but praying for rain on the last day of Sukkot: excellent!

Digression: The Great and Holy Sages of Blessed Memory say that while our individual fates are written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, the fate of the world’s water is written on the first night of Sukkot and sealed on Shmini Atzeret. Droughts? Tempests? Thirst? Empty canals? Full reservoirs? Rising Damp? Floods? Tsunamis? During Sukkot it is written, and on Shmini Atzeret it is sealed. If you want to inspire yourself to really fervent prayer, imagine the years when the fate of the world’s water is a bad one. End Digression.

So what is the difference between Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret? Well, Rabbi Schreiber points out the obvious: Shmini Atzeret is the end of Sukkot. On the day of Shmini Atzeret, we move out of the sukkah and into our houses. So, of course, rain is not such a big deal—we hope. The Rabbis talk about the issue of Sukkot and people with holes in the roof as well, but let’s attempt not to get too distracted here. In the general run of things, this is the day we leave the temporary dwellings that are open to the elements and enter our secure, dry, permanent homes. So if it rains on Shmini Atzeret, we don’t miss out on a lot of time in the sukkah, and we appreciate our permanent homes so much the more.

But wait… there’s the practical meaning and then there’s the metaphorical meaning, right? And while practically we live during Sukkot in lean-tos in the backyard, metaphorically we are living in the wilderness between the Narrow Place and the Promised Land, between slavery and autonomy. When we leave our temporary dwelling to enter our permanent one, we are metaphorically reenacting when the People of Israel left the wilderness and entered the land that would be our nation. We are even more metaphorically reenacting leaving our temporary and probationary status as spiritual seekers, and beginning a time of (spiritual) stability and practicality: the holidays are over, it’s time to start living right every day.

Or, to extend Rabbi Schreiber’s outlook, just as the settlement of the Holy Land necessitated a change in point of view to that of stewards of the land, Shmini Atzeret is time to stop looking at rain short term, as a personal inconvenience, and start looking at rain long-term. And by rain, we of course mean Torah.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.