A scene from my early baal-tshuvah-hood, if you’re interested:
It is something like 1982, in a small college-town in central Virginia, and I am standing at first light in the first sukkah I have built since childhood. My brother and I crafted it in his backyard, following the hallowed instructions of (what was by then) the First Jewish Catalog. The rickety structure has survived its first night of yom tov, and here I am, wrapped in my tallis, picking up my lulav and etrog in preparation for the mitzvah of waving the “Four Species.”
The quiet of the rural dawn is broken by the keen of a rusty screen door screeching open. The aging neighbor-lady, Miss Bessy Failes (Daughter of the Confederacy), steps onto her porch looking for her Charlottesville Observer. In a moment our eyes lock, and I immediately see myself as she must see me: a Jew in a shack, just beyond her fence, wrapped in a shroud and threatening her with what appears to be a bushy fishing rod and an engorged citrus.
I smile my most gracious grin and blurt out: “Oh, don’t worry, we need the rain!”
Miss Failes and I somehow recovered from that encounter. But she never quite cottoned to the idea that Judaism is involved in “primitive” acts of rainmaking. Circumcision, okay, but waving water-plants at the onset of the rainy season? What is this, something out of National Geographic? Jee-zus, she was certain, had, in his mercy, relieved her of such “old covenant ceremonialism,” and she simply pitied those who remained thus enslaved.
“Reminds me of that Hoodooism!” she sniffed.
Well, it’s true — many Jews even now enter the fall season expecting to do our part in helping the Creator to keep Creation properly irrigated. And this is worth remembering precisely now, when the once-stony refusals of business and political leaders to acknowledge global climatic change yield grudgingly to the panicked cry for government to save us from our own addictions to fossil fuels and aerosol deodorants.
In the Age of Global Warming, I am gladdened to recall that the autumnal rainmaking of Sukkot is only part of Judaism’s climate-control heritage. Lesser known is the fact that, in ancient times, the Talmudic sages themselves had the power to decree a series of communal fasts in times of drought that were intended to remind the Creator that rains were needed now!
The procedures for these rain-inducing rituals are set forth in the Mishna tractate Taanit. They are elaborated in the discussions of both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. When studying these gemaras, I am always struck by the honesty of the sages who admit that, for all their knowledge of Torah and their ritual expertise, their rainmaking skills paled before those of relatively ignorant holy men whose prayers could reliably bring the needed downpour when all other options had failed.
Honi the Circle-Drawer, who could not only bring rain, but tendered requests for measured quantities, is only the most famous of these ancient Hasidim — “Men of Deeds” — as they were called. Let me introduce you to another:
The Talmud Yerushalmi Taanit (p. 64b in the Krotoschin edition or p. 5a-b in Vilna) knows him solely by his Greek alias: Pentakakos. I’ll call him, as his name suggests, “Mr. Five-Sins.” His story is nestled among a series of tales of simple Jews who, through a common act of kindness, receive the ability to avert communal catastrophe with their prayers for rain. It goes like this:
At a time of drought,
A certain Mr. Five-Sins appeared to Rabbi Abbahu in a dream
And disclosed that if he prayed for rain, it would fall.
R. Abbahu sent and had Mr. Five-Sins brought to him.
The rabbi said: “What’s your trade?”
Mr. Five-Sins replied: “I commit five transgressions each day—
I hire whores, sweep out the theaters they frequent, bring their costumes to the bath house, strut and dance before them, and play my flute for them!”
R. Abbahu said to Mr. Five-Sins: “And what good deed have you done?”
He replied: “One time I was sweeping out the theater.
A certain woman came by and stood behind a pillar, weeping.
I said to her: ‘What’s with you?’
She said to me: ‘My husband is in prison
And I must do an unthinkable deed to release him!’
So I sold my bed and mattress and gave her the proceeds,
And I said to her: Here you go! Free your husband and do not sin!”
R. Abbahu said to Mr. Five-Sins: “You are worthy of having your prayer answered!”
Clearly, Mr. Five-Sins is what my Aunt Bebe from Great Neck calls “a Nishtgutkeit” (a No-Goodnik)! Were he alive today, he’d probably be running the “Live Girls” place on 1st and Pike. Nevertheless, one day he has a lucid moment and spares a young wife from the very fate that his own lifestyle supports. And, suddenly, he is favored with the rarest of gifts — the ability to remind the Creator of Heaven and Earth to cause the wind to blow and the rains to descend!
The meaning of Mr. Five-Sins’ story, in the context of others about Honi, or the Hasid of Kfar Imi, and other unlettered rainmakers, is simple: a heartfelt act of human solidarity outweighs a library full of learning when it comes to catching the Creator’s attention for the needs of the Community. I’m not confident that the Yerushalmi offers us here a detailed solution to global warming. But, it seems pretty clear that if more Americans traded in our self-centered wastefulness for a more global perspective on the shared fate of every form of life on the planet, we just might merit the renewed attention of the Creator!
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.