May the Rains begin to Fall...

3 Heshvan 5776

by Rabbi Daria

I love looking at the moon, and connecting its waxing and waning to the changing Hebrew date.  For example, since today is the 3rd of Heshvan, and the new month starts with a new moon, we know that when we next see the moon, it will be a slowly growing sliver of silver in the darkness of the sky.

(Note: When we generally talk about the phases of a moon, a "new moon" means when there is no moon.  However, in the Jewish calendar, when we talk about the "new moon/rosh hodesh" we mean the beginning of the moon's growth and the beginning of the new month. This time period can of course best be known after we actually see the moon.  Therefore, when we talk about the "new moon" in terms of the Jewish calendar, it means the first sighting of the moon, and not the day when the moon cannot be seen at all.  After all, if the ancient rabbis wanted to be sure that the new month had started, they couldn't go by when they couldn't see the moon. Rather, it was infinitely more reliable to know if the new moon (and therefore the new month) was here, and on what day the holidays of that month would fall if they counted time from after they could first see the moon in the sky.)

As Rosh Hodesh (the new moon of) Heshvan moves farther away in time, and we start to enter the new month of Heshvan, Sukkot also falls behind us and we are back to living indoors, in a more protected way.  Israel's weather is comparable to that of CA: we have a rainy season and a dry season.  With the turning of the moon and the months, and the completion of Sukkot, we now begin to more fervently ask for the rain to start falling, in its appropriate season/zman.  To that end, our prayers traditionally turn to a more explicit heart yearning for "mashiv ha'ruah u'morid ha'gashem/ may the winds blow and the rains fall"! Judaism contains many practical elements.  Although we want the winds to bring in the rain clouds, and for the clouds to let down the rains so our land can receive rain in quantities that will bless us and the land (not floods!), we don't really want it to "rain on our party" (in the sukkah)! And so we wait until after Sukkot to shift our heart yearnings from asking for dew to fall, to asking for the winds and rains to arrive.

We each understand the creation of the world in whatever speaks to our hearts and minds.  Yet as those of us who joined for our ZMANIM Rosh HaShanah family celebration know through experience,  our sacred Jewish telling of the story of creation teaches that in the beginning of it all, the tumultuous, primordial waters (mayim) that have existed since eternity had been swirling all around: from high above to deep below, filling all space.  On the second day of the differentiation and the beginning of order that has led to creation as we know it, the waters (mayim) began to separate into those waters (mayim) that are above - from our perspective up over "there" (sham)- and those that are below.

For the sake of a quick Hebrew lesson (I love teaching Hebrew!), let us skip for a moment to our next holiday (other than Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh/the new moon holiday): that of Hanukkah.  On a dreidl that is made to be used outside the land of Israel, we have 4 letters: nun, gimel, hay, shin.  They stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means "a great miracle happened there/sham." (As a junior in college I had the great pleasure of spending the year on a kibbutz and at the University of Haifa.  It was sham/there- at the University of Haifa, during Hanukkah- that I had the powerful experience of realizing that for that year's celebration I needed to celebrate that "a great miracle happened "here/po"!  Dreidls in Israel of course reflect this difference as well, as you can see when you look at the final letter: there is a "peh" instead of a "shin").

And now back to creation... When a space was created between the swirling waters (mayim) as they separated into those above (over there/sham), and the waters that are below, the Hebrew reflects that by calling the waters above "sham-mayim/(up) there-water," more often transliterated as "shamayim."  Right!  Of course!  Why not!? What a helpful understanding of what is high above (that above space is where water comes from!) , and what we hope to come from above (mayim!).  For this same part of the world, our English language offers us the word "heavens/sky/firmament."  We know what these words mean, but what is the essence and nature of these words?  According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to understand the essence of these words we would need to know the follow languages:

  • "heaven" comes from Middle English- heven, from Old English heofon and is akin to Old High German himil heaven;
  • "sky" is from Middle English, cloud, sky, from Old Norse skȳ cloud; akin to Old English scēo cloud and
  • "firmament" finds its roots in Middle English, from Late Latin & Latin; Late Latin firmamentum, from Latin, support, from firmare. 

Therefore, to really understand those English words (heavens, sky, firmament) and their essence, one would need to know Middle English, Old High German, Old Norse, Old English, Latin, and Late Latin.  The wonderful thing I love about Hebrew is that with knowing two simple words that are used in common parlance (one of which also connects with Hanukkah- sham, and so there is extra reinforcement in its understanding through that venue, and the other which is the name of a very popular Israeli folk dance - Mayim), you can understand in a very clear, direct way an ancient Biblical Hebrew word- shamayim.  Not only do you have to rely on a translation that might say "On Day 2 of Creation the waters separated in those those above, the heavens/sky/firmament, and those below," but you can know that it really just means that space was created between the once unified waters, and above that space, high above us, we have sham-mayim/there is where water still resides, until it rains down on us.  For those of us who have ever seen a rain cloud from afar, or have ever looked out at the horizon where it meets the ocean, we can see how the waters above and below can still unite in form.  Yay, Hebrew! 

So how does this all connect to the moon, and our new month of Heshvan?  In the month of Heshvan our daily liturgy changes (until Passover).  Tefillah/Prayer - whether words, chant, movement, or whatever we find useful-  can be quite powerful for the one who gives voice to what lies inside, let alone the potential effect beyond the individual.

So as we formally enter our rainy season, may we get in touch with our vulnerability and dependence upon those primordial waters that sustain life today.  May our heart yearnings for rain more fervently express themselves, thereby helping the heavens themselves to open up, the rains to fall, and the waters above (sham- mayim) that reside in the shamayim (sky/heavens/firmament) to merge once again with the mayim below.