Finally, winter has arrived, and with a vengeance: blinding, howling, driving rainstorms that flood the rooftops and the culverts and wash buses off the highway, interspersed with clear, cold nights and magnificent days of towering drifting clouds, warm sun, and cleansed air. You may be wet and cold and uncomfortable, frustrated by the hassles of travel in this season but your misery is mitigated (really!) by the awareness that rain is not only a symbol of blessing, it is a blessing.
It was told of the late Aryeh Dulzin, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, [actually, this story has been claimed by others as well; who knows if it really happened to any of them?] that as a boy in Mexico City he once accompanied his father to services on Sh'mini Atzeret, the end-holiday of Sukkot; it was a particularly rainy day, so when the cantor began to chant the prayer for rain that is part of the Sh'mini Atzeret liturgy, little Aryeh asked his father why they were praying for rain, under the circumstances. His father answered: "This is not our rain."
Our rain, of course, is the rain of Eretz Yisrael. This is a cute Zionist story. But I think it is also more than that. It is not just that our rain falls in our land; rather, the rain that falls (or doesn't fall) in Eretz Yisrael has more than just meteorological significance. Since the agricultural economy of Israel has always been dependent on the amount of rain that falls between October and April, and since this amount varies from year to year, rain became the symbol par excellence of God's favor:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord's anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain [Deuteronomy 11:13-17]
Reciting this passage twice a day (it is part of the Sh'ma), Jews in every corner of the exile, from Alaska to Zimbabwe, regardless of local climate, ecology, or agriculture, have taken for granted the connection between rain and the covenant. However, in the Diaspora, the connection is symbolic, one step removed from everyday reality; our rain is virtual rain, just as Pesach as a festival of spring represents a virtual spring for Jews living in, say, Argentina, where Pesach occurs in the autumn. Since the dispersion to the Diaspora, Jews have lived simultaneously in two realities, two climates. That dual existence, I think, was at times painful, but often I suspect that it was uplifting: we lived our mundane lives wherever we lived them, but when we recited the formulas and ate the foods that connected us to the seasons in Eretz Yisrael, we transported ourselves to another level of existence, we partook of an ideal, utopian world that was lost in the past, would return in the future, but was eternally present in our liturgy and holiday customs.
So something's lost and something's gained with our return to the land. We can no longer take comfort in an idealized, virtual reality of a wonderful land far away. This is the only land there is, and all the rain is our rain just as all the drought and all the pollution are ours as well. And while as modern, rational humanists, we know that waste and pollution and poor planning are our own responsibility, as is the just distribution of scarce resources, we cannot escape the fact that we are dependent on forces outside ourselves for the most basic, sustaining resource, the rain. When I recite the above paragraph of the Sh'ma here in Israel, I always find myself glancing out the window.