After long months of living on the precipice of drought and ecological disaster, the rains finally came to Israel not long ago. The waters of the Kineret and the underground aquifers, which had for so long stood at sub-danger levels, were rising again as heavy rain swept the country.
But Heaven's mercies were far from tender; the sky-cracking thunderstorms and widespread flooding seemed to derive from the general atmosphere of violence in the region. Indeed, for some, the steady onslaught of dark weather was depressing, as one close friend of mine confided to me. She realizes, of course, the need for rain, but such weather has always been for her a giant mood-changer, and she couldn't help feeling what she felt.
How, I wondered, does such a person pray for rain? During the winter months, the daily prayer includes ten tal u'matar, a request for dew and rain. But it's not so easy to sincerely ask for rain when deep down what you really want is warm sunshine, and an end to huddling under the endless nimbo-stratus of winter.
Nor is it a trifling matter. The Talmud records that on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would say a short prayer upon exiting the Holy of Holies.The Talmud asks about the content of the prayer. What was the mysterious prayer that needed to be said at this juncture in the drama of the Yom Kippur service, immediately after completing the burning of the incense, as the nation watched and waited? The answer: it was a prayer for rain and prosperity for the coming year. The Talmud furthermore notes that the prayer included a unique addendum, that G-d should not heed the prayers of wayfarers that it should not rain on them.
The wayfarers' prayers held such potency that such an anti-prayer for the general public welfare was required. We see from this that G-d listens to the prayers of ordinary people, even when it may be detrimental to the welfare of the majority. We must be careful what we want (or don't want), lest our desires be fulfilled.
What, then, is one to do? You can't fake it. Not for nothing is prayer is called the service of the heart; and G-d knows what's going on inside.
Is it necessary to enter into an internal struggle, to ask for rain in spite of one's own desires? To put the needs of the nation above one's own personal feelings? There is certainly precedent for it. Abraham prayed that G-d should spare the inhabitants of Sodom, even though they represented every evil thing he had dedicated himself to opposing. Why? Because he was willing to suffer their existence, to live under the black cloud of their immorality, in order to give them the opportunity to repent.
While it would be a noble emulation of the ways of Abraham, such heroic sentiments may not be necessary. An easier solution is contained in the text of the prayer itself, so carefully composed by our Sages. There are two words for rain in the Shmoneh Esrei: geshem and matar. In the second blessing (Gevurot), we are not asking for rain. Rather, we acknowledge the Creator's power to make the wind blow and the rain come down. The word used there is geshem, a general term for rain. In the later blessing for a good year (HaShanim), we are making a request for rain. There, we ask for matar, which specifically connotes desirable rain. That is, the kind of rain that fills the reservoirs and soaks into the ground, replenishing the water table; not the violent downpours that cause flooding and mudslides, and whose torrents run uselessly to the sea. Likewise, we say ten tal u'matar l'vracha (give dew and rain for a blessing), for a blessing. The blessing is in the timing, that the rain should come at times when it will cause the least hardship, when people are most likely to be home, and not getting caught in storms on the road.
Likewise, for those for whom the blessings of winter feel more like a curse, they can have in mind that the rain should come at night, when they're home sleeping, and let the sun shine during the days. So there need be no conflict between the material needs of the nation and the emotional needs of the individual.
Why, then, was it necessary for the High Priest's anti-prayer? Didn't the travelers in those days know the meaning of the prayer for rain? Perhaps not. Or perhaps, once caught on a muddy road in a drenching downpour, one tends to forget the subtleties of the text. What comes out may be a simple cry for an end to the rain. And the heartfelt supplications of a person suffering real and immediate hardship may be more powerful than the banal mutterings of the dry and well-protected under the synagogue rafters.
And what, then, when sooner or later the inevitable occurs, and we find ourselves caught in the rain? Perhaps then there is no choice but to try to overcome our feelings, and to be like Abraham for the good of everybody.
Or, maybe not. Maybe we can say a little prayer for the rain to stop long enough for us to get out from under it, to get to a nice, warm, dry synagogue, where we can ask G-d to bring down some more of that good wet stuff...but just a little bit later, please.