Torah | Drought reminds us to give thanks for rain, as our ancestors did


Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Isaiah 49:14-51:3


Like the rest of the Bay Area, I am watching grass, fields and crops slowly brown and die. My guilt flares with every drop I drink or use to water a plant. An interesting synchronicity of living in California and practicing Judaism is that our weather patterns are similar to Israel’s Mediter-ranean climate, making the agricultural pieces of our ancient texts and traditions especially resonant.

The rhythm of the Jewish holidays and liturgy is fundamentally tied to our seasons and matches the climate we are living in. When we say our prayers for rain, we do so with perhaps the same desperation as our ancestors whose existence was bound up with the amount of rain they received in the winter season, often not enough to sustain their crops and population.

Rain was so central to the ancient rabbis that they compared a day of rainfall to the day of resurrection, the day the Torah was given, and the day heaven and Earth were created (Ta’anit 7a). Our ancestors worked the land and knew their dependence on weather and the seasons for their crops to flourish, while we feel more and more disconnected from our food production. They knew that a lack of water meant an uncertain livelihood. Likewise, three years into one of California’s worst water shortages, we watch as our drought causes financial catastrophe and empties schools in Central California as entire communities flee in search of work.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, reads, “If you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day … I will grant the rain for your land in season” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). This promise of rain was deemed so important to our ancient liturgists that they established it as the second paragraph of the daily Shema in our prayerbook. In this verse, the falling of the rain is intrinsically linked to our behavior.

In fact, throughout Deuteronomy, we read that if the Israelites don’t behave well, doom will fall upon us. If we obey God’s commandments, we will be rewarded with bounty. This theology of retribution is difficult to stomach — it’s blaming people for their own misfortune. In fact, the Reform and Reconstructionist prayerbooks offer substitute readings or omit this piece of liturgy because it is the kind of reasoning that blamed the destruction of Hurricane Katrina on licentious behavior, and the AIDS epidemic on sexual activity that some labeled immoral.

This theology is born from a desire for control. When we are overwhelmed by catastrophes, we search for explanations to reassure ourselves that if we behave differently, they won’t happen to us. But we search in the wrong place if we blame them on a God who punishes and rewards to keep us in line. We perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and blame people for their own troubles.

Do we believe that God is punishing us by withholding rain? There is much we can learn from God’s ultimatum even if retribution theology does not ring true for us. Earlier in our portion, we are given the commandment, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). This verse becomes the basis for our blessing after eating lest we take for granted a single meal. The portion continues, “When you have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty” (Deuteronomy 8:12). Arthur Green comments, “Ironically, the more we are blessed, so it seems, the less grateful and aware of blessing we become. It is when we are most sated, Scripture warns us, that we should be most careful” (Siddur Kol Haneshamah Shabbat Vehagim, p. 69).

When we stop being grateful for every sip of water, when we forget how blessed we are in whatever degree of bounty we receive, we are in danger of overuse and exploitation. When we are constantly appreciative and mindful of what we have, we are less likely to waste it. In this time of drought, perhaps our glaring dependence on forces outside of our control can lead us to a place of humility and conservation that can last when the rains begin to fall again.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."