Geshem: Praying for Water and Balance

The theme of the week is water. I'm sitting in front of my window, watching the rain fall, as I type. This week, the Jewish calendar is marking both endings and beginnings. On Shemini Atzeret (which was Tuesday), Jewish communities around the world recited the Geshem prayer, for rain, as this holiday marks not only the end of the fall chagim, but also the start of the rainy season in the land of Israel. It is from Shemini Atzeret until Pesach (still half a year away) that we insert into every Amidah we recite a special line: "mashiv ha-ruach u'morid ha-gashem," "You cause the winds to return and the rain to fall."

The theme of the week is water. I'm sitting in front of my window, watching the rain fall, as I type.

This week, the Jewish calendar is marking both endings and beginnings. On Shemini Atzeret (which was Tuesday), Jewish communities around the world recited the Geshem prayer, for rain, as this holiday marks not only the end of the fall chagim, but also the start of the rainy season in the land of Israel. It is from Shemini Atzeret until Pesach (still half a year away) that we insert into every Amidah we recite a special line: "mashiv ha-ruach u'morid ha-gashem," "You cause the winds to return and the rain to fall."

As the Geshem prayer acknowledges, rain is an incredible source of blessing, but it needs to come in just the right amount. In the Geshem prayer, we ask that the rain will be "livracha v'lo li'klala," "for blessing and not for curse," "l'chayim v'lo la-mavet," "for life and not for death," and "l'sova v'lo l'razon," "for bounty and not for famine." Either extreme -- too little rain or too much rain -- can spell catastrophe for the world. (If you're not familiar with Tefillat Geshem, the Prayer for Rain, and are interested in learning more, this link will take you to a great article by Rabbi Jacob Fine and also to a lovely Geshem video courtesy of the Jewish Farm School!)

I have thought about this idea a lot -- the notion of needing water to exist in just the right balance -- as the effects of climate change have become clearer and clearer. I can now articulate in ways that I couldn't only a few years ago that the droughts and wildfires here in Washington State and up and down the west coast are really just the other side of the same coin as flooding in Houston and hurricanes in New England. Too little rain in one place and too much water in another is a symptom of a world out of balance... a world in which geshem is a curse and not a blessing.

This Shabbat, as we begin our Torah reading cycle anew with Parashat Bereishit, it's hard not to notice that water was plentiful and abundant in the pristine Garden of Eden. God creates the earth in Genesis 1:6 by separating "bein mayim la-mayim," "between waters and waters." As the text of Genesis 2:5-6 says, even before rainfall had come into being, "a flow would come up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth"; the parasha also describes the four rivers that issue from Eden to water the garden (see Genesis 2:10). Once human beings have erred and are expelled from the garden, the world seems so much drier: Adam and Eve are punished with needing to work the soil, as thorns and thistles sprout, and they themselves will someday return to dust (Genesis 3:17-19).

Liz was reflecting just this morning that it really feels to her like we're turning a corner and transitioning right now, both weather-wise and as we gear up for the new program year at Kavana. Our natural world here in the Pacific Northwest sure needed this drink of water -- and the rainfall over the last few days seems to have come right on time!

As we move forward -- into our new cycle of Torah reading, into the new Jewish year of 5782 (now that we're over the hump of all of the Tishrei holidays), and into the rainy season (in the land of Israel and also here in Seattle) -- I hope that each and every one of us will find all the water and nourishment that we need, in just the right amount.

May this rainy season bring us the balance we seek, such that its water will be a blessing and not curse, for life and not for death, for bounty and not for famine. Amen!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum