I’m not a fan of the angry Old Testament God.
Obey my commands or suffer the consequences. Light a fire on the Sabbath Day and be put to death. Commit utter genocide on the enemy tribe of Amalek—kill all men, women, and children.
There’s a reason why the religion we follow is generally regarded as “Rabbinic Judaism” rather than “Biblical Judaism.” The events of the Bible and the laws that are given needed to be put into a more user-friendly context. One classic example is from a passage we read from the Torah not too long ago—what to do with a rebellious and disrespectful child. The Torah tells us that the parents should publicly declare that they’ve had it up to here with this kid, and he won’t listen to anything they tell him. They bring him out to the public square where he’s promptly stoned to death. (Yeah, ok, sure, we’ve all thought about it, but….)
The rabbis who came later put a reasonable spin on that—they basically put so many additional requirements on the scenario that it could never realistically be carried out. They understood that it was the underlying message—that of honoring your parents—which was important and not the conditions by which we could eliminate our children.
This is the challenge of the modern Jew—how do you take a seemingly archaic or anachronistic text or law, and make it relevant and meaningful for modern life?
One example for me is the middle paragraph of the Shema, a familiar litany of reward and punishment. Obey each thing I tell you, God says, and you’ll have everything you need. Rain in its season. I’ll let you live. But if you disobey me…the heavens will dry up, no more rain, your crops will die and your animals will perish. You’ll soon disappear from the land forever. Nice. Lovely.
But underneath the ancient and disturbing theology lies a modern, twenty-first century message on global warming and how we treat the environment. We do depend on rain in its season—the proper amount at the right time. For that to happen, we have to be responsible about our actions and what effect they will have on us, whether it’s immediate or down the road a hundred or so years.
That message is all the more powerful this week as we prepare to celebrate the festival of Shemini Atzeret—yes, that’s a real holiday and no, I didn’t just make it up so I could cancel your kid’s bar mitzvah lesson. During services on this day, we recite Tefilat Geshem, the Prayer for Rain—linking the festival to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. But we up the ante by invoking the recently passed High Holidays. Traditionally, the cantor pulls out his or her just-put-away white robe, and the entire service looks and feels like Yom Kippur all over again. The implication is that rain—having enough water to drink and to grow crops and feed animals—is literally a life-or-death matter.
Whether you believe that God sits in Old Testament judgment over us and doles out the moisture accordingly, or if we ourselves have the power to evaluate our actions and how they impact the environment, we acknowledge the fragility of our world and the effect that our climate holds over our lives. The Prayer for Rain is one reminder that our decisions today will certainly affect future generations.