Parshat Noach usually falls out at the start of the rainy season in Israel, which tends to be quite a dramatic event. Often there is no warning: The sky is no more overcast than usual; the forecast is the same as the day before and the day before that; no one thinks to carry an umbrella. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, the skies heave. It is as if, as the Torah describes in Parshat Noach, arubot hashamayim niftachu – the floodgates of the heavens open. Within moments, the streets are flooded and the sidewalks are dotted with muddy brown puddles. Bus drivers try to remember where the switch for the windshield wipers is located on the dashboard; pedestrians duck under the awning of the local grocery for cover; students rummage through their backpacks for a plastic bag to put over their heads. Everyone remembers where they were at the moment the rainy season began – it is an event worthy even of its own name, Biblical in origin: the Yoreh.
It would be hard to imagine forty days and forty nights of the type of rain that falls in Israel, even if we all had our own private arks in which to retreat. But it is not hard to appreciate that rainfall is a sure sign of the hand of God in the world. The rain is a reminder that although God may not lead us through life in a pillar of cloud, there is nonetheless a divinity that shapes our ends. In his commentary on the Eyn Yaakov to Masechet Taanit, Abraham ben Judah Leib, a nineteenth-century Russian commentator known as the Ahavat Eytan, compares the onset of rain to the creation of the world: “A day of rain is as momentous as the day when the heavens and earth were created. Why? For the creation of the world testifies to the existence of God; and the rain testifies to His providence.” We see the world around us and say there must be a Creator; we see the rain, and we say He must have a hand in this world.
It is difficult for us, who live in a world of computers and satellites and self-cleaning ovens, to accept that our lives are not entirely in our control. We think that our technological prowess has rendered God obsolete. Not so, reminds Parshat Noach, with the cautionary tale of Babel. The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 109a) that those who built the tower of Babel have no share in the world to come. “What did they do ? The school of Rabbi Sheyla explains: They said, ‘Let us build a tower and climb up to the heavens, and hack at the skies with pickaxes to make the water flow forth.'” The Babel builders, traumatized by the flood stories their grandparents told them, wanted to prevent any unexpected meteorological disasters. The wanted to put the rain on an automatic timer – to be in control of just how much rain would fall, and when. But the One Who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall destroyed their great weather vane and scattered them to the four winds.
Rain is emblematic of the part of our lives that is in God’s hands. As such, it is a central locus of prayer. According to the Talmud (Yoma 52b), the only prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was about rain: “The High Priest would kindle the incense on the flames until the Holy of Holies was full of smoke. He would go out in the way he had come, reciting a very short prayer. What would he pray? Raba bar Rav Ada and Rabin bar Rav Ada both say in the name of Rav that he would say, ‘May it be Your will O Lord our God that this year should be rainy and warm.'” The Talmud goes on to explain that the High Priest would keep his prayer short so as not to terrify Israel – were he to stay in the Holy of Holies for too long, they would panic that he had died of shock and awe. In the holiest place at the holiest time, the emissary of the people to the Holy One devoted his few precious seconds of prayer to the matter of precipitation.
We pray for rain because we cannot control it – we accept that it is out of our hands. And yet the modern Hebrew word used for “to actualize” or “to make real” is l’hagshim, which comes from the same root as geshem, rain. If a day of rain is as great as the day of creation, perhaps it is because rain is a physical link between heaven and earth, and, as such, a reminder of our power to imitate the Divine in Whose image we were created. Let us scale the heights towards which we strive, not to challenge the providence of God, but to open the floodgates of our own imaginations.