Lying in bed, the soft dawn light peeking in through my curtains, still in that state between being asleep and awake, I listen to the sound of softly falling rain. My visions of a morning run in the sunlight foiled again.
As a newcomer to Seattle, acclimatizing to this environment has brought an unanticipated spiritual experience. My heightened sensitivity is two-fold: The exuberance on a radiant sun-filled day is a phenomenon about which I had heard, but I was unprepared for the spirited exhilaration — the attitude of “stop everything, come outside and soak up the sunshine.”
The second part of this sensitivity is an appreciation of Judaism’s liturgical and festival ties to the rainy season. Shemini Atzeret, the holiday that falls at the end of Sukkot, marks the beginning of the rainy season following the harvest in Israel. On this day, we begin to recite the prayer requesting rain for a plentiful year. The second part of the Sh’ma also proclaims a direct relationship between the rains we receive and the life choices we make: “And if you will carefully obey my commands which I give you today…I will give rains for your land at the right season…. Beware lest your heart…turn and serve other gods and worship them, for then the Eternal’s anger will blaze against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain.”
As we mentally and spiritually prepare ourselves for the months of rain ahead, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, offers a path to view the forces of sun and rain as our inner spiritual lives. Sunlight cannot be generated by the earth itself — it must come from an outside source. Thus, if we view sunlight as enlightenment, as the absolute and transcendent in our lives, sunlight urges us to step back and open ourselves up to an outside power.
Rain, on the other hand, originates as moisture that rises from the earth, forms clouds, and returns as life-giving waters. So the earth is not a passive beneficiary of the rain falling from the heavens. She generates it herself, raising columns of mist from her oceans and lakes to water her soil. While the earth generates her own moisture, we can view the Eternal’s presence in this process as enabling us to reach upward in our own search for truth and meaning in life, and thereby generate a spiritual nurture of our own making — rain.
Both divine gifts are crucial to the spiritual life of our souls. On one hand, we recognize our inherent limitations. We understand that if there is to be anything that is infinite and transcendent in our lives, it is beyond us. We open ourselves to a higher truth — a truth to which we can relate only as passive recipients. This truth is beyond anything we could generate ourselves. Rain, however, is characterized by human endeavor and initiative. The Eternal may accompany us in our pursuits as we seek to create holy lives, but we are the architects, we generate our destiny.
• • •
If we return to our Jewish yearly cycle, the summer months from Nisan to Tishrei are characterized by God’s unilateral divine manipulation: Our Passover exodus, when God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm save us from the Egyptians; and Shavuot, when God gives us Torah amidst trembling mountains and smoke on Mount Sinai.
The winter months, the Season of Rains, on the other hand, is a half-year characterized by human endeavor and initiative. In the month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Repentance are a time of teshuvah, of soul-searching and self-improvement. The Season of Rains also contains the two festivals instituted by the rabbis: Hanukkah and Purim. Unlike the biblical festivals, which were commanded by God, these were created by humans as our own responses to historical events.
Our Jewish calendar accordingly reflects the seasons of the soul. In the summer months, we are passive recipients of God’s power. The sunlight aspect of our spiritual lives is fixed and unwavering. During this time, we surrender ourselves to this higher truth, to what is infinite, perfect and absolute.
But during the winter months when we turn to our rainmaking selves, our initiatives and achievements are subject to our human fluctuations. As we endeavor toward our aspirations, as we strive to apply the lessons from our teshuvah, we stumble with setbacks and missteps, sometimes progressing and sometimes faltering. This is both the strength and weakness of our rainy season. While we suffer from our human instabilities, this is also a time of flexibility, where a lack might be transformed into a gain and a vulnerability considered a source of blessing.
Now, as we anticipate the winter months, may we have the strength to renew our goals and passions as the rains pour down upon us. May we be patient with our frailties, reconsidering them as junctures for cultivating our fortitude and spirit.