Commentary

Climate Change and Prayers for Rain and Dew

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Chaim Trachtman

Weather concerns are a consideration in just about every decision we make each day. What to wear, how much time it will take to get to work, the timing of vacations, planning family celebrations – each one is impacted by our expectation and hope for what the weather will be. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that weather is a prominent part of our daily liturgy. We officially begin to pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret and start saying mashiv ha-ru’ach u-morid ha-geshem right after (or during) musaf that day. But we delay the actual request for rain for a few weeks. In Israel, they delay for three weeks in commemoration of the concern for ancient travelers who the Rabbis wanted to be sure returned home safely from their holiday pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Outside of Israel, rain was not needed as urgently. Therefore, the liturgical practice was to wait until 60 days passed after the fall equinox, the last date when wood was brought into people’s homes (Ta’anit 10a). For complicated calendrical reasons, we actually defer inserting the phrase, “ve-tein tal u-matar,” the definitive ask, until December 4th (or the 5th this past year). We stick with this formulation for several months through the winter. Then, with the approach of spring and Pesah, we switch gears and prepare to pray for dew. On the first day of Pesah we incorporate a prayer for dew into the musaf prayer and resume saying morid ha-tal (in some traditions) and ve-tein berakhah after the holiday. This year, as we watch spring unfold outside our windows, it seems like an opportune time to examine how we might consider prayers for good weather throughout the year.

Rain consists of liquid droplets that have condensed from atmospheric water vapor and fall to earth by gravity when they become heavy enough. Concern about rain features prominently throughout Sukkot and reaches a culmination on Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of the holiday, and on Shemini Atzeret. Examination of the lengthy hoshanot prayers we recite on the seventh day of Sukkot reveals that concern about the full spectrum of bad weather is a prominent feature in the poetic and allusive but often-skipped prayers. There is a great deal of focus on water and the nutritive power of rain. We recall the many Biblical characters who were saved by rain or destroyed by floods and drought. Yet, while rain is the primary focus, we also pray that we should be spared windstorms, and pestilence, and a frightening litany of agricultural disasters.

What about dew? We start to pray for dew in the spring, perhaps in anticipation of several consecutive hot, rain-free months in Israel, when dew seems to be the only form of moisture available in the environment. As a meteorological phenomenon, dew is more mundane than rain. It is comprised of water droplets that imperfectly wet the surface on which they condense. Unlike rain, dew is experienced daily. The formation of dew is connected to a number of local physical phenomena occurring at the ground level. Unlike rain, which reflects recycling of water from the ground through the atmosphere and is an impressive natural phenomenon,    the formation of dew appears to be inevitable, virtually automatic, simple condensation of water from the early morning air, a minor occurrence. Perhaps, that is why the prayer for dew is a brief, one-day affair and somewhat generic. It lacks the pomp and personality of tefilat geshem. Nonetheless, how dew gets started in the first place is still mysterious[1]. Although growth of an assembly of dew droplets is better understood, the formation and expansion of an isolated droplet still remains poorly explained. It would be a mistake to dismiss dew as inconsequential. Dew generates free water in the environment. It is easily absorbed by plant leaves and maintains leaf moisture in the tree canopy[2]. Dew has been found to account for almost half of the water content of three plant species that grow in the Negev[3]. All things considered, there is still space for prayer.

Along with sun, wind, and snow, rain and dew are how we experience the weather. Although we moderns are not as mindful as our ancestors were, the weather is still an imposing force. Hurricane Sandy shut down a major medical system for months. Flights are frequently cancelled and transportation services are shut down for days by ice storms. Extreme heat spells and poor air quality linked to temperature inversions kill the elderly and sick[4]. Large swaths of forest catch fire and burn out of control each summer. The Los Angeles hills and Australian outback seem so parched that even the early morning ground is dewless, dry to the touch.

We live in a world where only a small minority of the population is engaged in working the land and those who do often operate huge parcels of land owned by mega-corporations with computerized machines. Urban dwellers are distant from these concerns. Even in an electronically linked world, we live far away from people whose lives depend on the earth’s seasonal productivity and cyclical changes. What are we to make of this disconnect and can we relate to the prayers for rain and fair weather on Sukkot and throughout the winter, and for dew in the spring on Pesah?

I propose that addressing the question of climate change in a thoughtful manner is one meaningful way to close this gap. This is a multifaceted, multinational problem that will require integration of a wide array of activities. Information about trends in weather and impact on the biosphere must be systematically assembled and analyzed. Medical and economic costs need to be calculated. People need to be educated about the impact of their activity on climate changes. Political will must be marshalled to define feasible and equitable approaches to dealing with this global challenge. These are monumental tasks and will require all of human ingenuity to tackle and solve. It will be human beings who feel themselves enjoined and empowered to protect the planet and its resources for future generations who will get the job done.

But humility must also come into play. One can argue the scientific facts about the amount and rate and main contributors to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the impact of acidification on the oceans, the changing dimensions of the polar ice caps, the infectious disease implications of the expansion of the ecosystem for disease bearing animals and the spread of ticks to higher latitudes[5]. No computer modeling or simulation is able to fully capture the multidimensional aspects of these interlocked global problems or to provide foolproof answers. The sociopolitical factors will be very complicated and require patience and compromise to achieve a thoughtful balance. Regardless, it would be irresponsible to ignore the issue.

Many who question the rate of global warming and the nature of the threat it represents claim that human ingenuity will prevail and will find a solution. They assert that the earth has experienced significant fluctuations in atmospheric conditions and temperature in the past and endured. It is as if to say, “Don’t worry so much. Climate change is a manageable problem like any other.” They do not suffer from any “ecoanxiety,” a diagnosis granted formal status by the American Psychological Association[6]. However, brushing off concern about worrisome changes in the weather as naïve angst may be a relatively moderate way of dismissing the issue. There is a newer and more troubling trend in which expressions of urgency about meteorological problems are dismissed as a form of misguided religious belief. Those who question climate change mock the predictions of impending doom and the eschatological tone of many of those who advocate for efforts to slow the trend in global warming. They dismiss the moralistic tone of environmentalists who endorse large-scale changes in human behavior and lifestyle. In a recent article in Commentary (November 2019, “The religion of climatism: a new faith emerges”), Josef Joffe criticized those who champion a greener worldview as having an “unflinching certainty,” similar to the faith that Martin Luther espoused. Writing in Law and Liberty, Paul Schwennesen claims that environmentalists are adopting a quasi-religious tone that easily lends itself to the adoption of coercive actions directed by a central authority. Concerns about the environment are compared unfavorably to other fanatical belief systems. These critics overlook the measured prose of Bill McKibben, who has written “In the world we grew up in, our most ingrained economic and political habit was growth; it’s the reflex we’re going to have to temper, and it’s going to be tough[7]. Or Elizabeth Kolbert, who has stated, “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it. A tiny set of genetic variations divides us from the Neanderthals, but that has made all the difference[8].” Challenging words to be sure, but humane and direct.

The view that concern about climate change is irrational zealotry distorts a genuine religious sensibility toward the environment and mankind’s responsibility to protect it. The prayers we say on Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Pesah, and throughout the year are not magical incantations to be invoked as a means of bailing us out of environmental difficulties. The catastrophes they detail are not blind threats. They are an acknowledgement that nature is a divine gift for which we should be grateful but in which we play a significant part through our activities. Moreover, they embody the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people – do the right thing and things will work out well. If not, beware the consequences.

Neither science nor religion ever have access to all the facts or perfect solutions. Life is always changing, the past is never a perfect guide to the future, and the unexpected is the rule. Witness the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe as I write. But it demeans human rationality not to listen to the facts, weigh the evidence, and do what can be done to minimize threats to one’s self and to others. As I said earlier in outlining the all-encompassing activity that will be needed to address climate change, it will require a combination of human power and humility. This reflects the philosophical sketch of human beings that Rabbi Soloveitchik drew in The Lonely Man of Faith[9]. The Rav was appreciative of the force of human intellect and creativity in confronting the world and asserting control over it. However, he underscored that science is not intrinsically moral and warned against hubris in applying technology.

This message should resonate as we deal with climate change. When Adam and Havah were placed in Gan Eden they were commanded to work it and protect it. They were granted the creative power (Adam/Havah I) to change and master the environment to serve their needs. But they were forced to acknowledge their limitations as finite mortals (Adam/Havah II). The human capacity to engage nature and alter the world is genuine but never comprehensive. Adam II looks upward and recognizes how miniscule he is in the universe that surrounds him. This sense of awe and scale serves as an antidote to any human notion of independent control of her existence.

We moderns must acknowledge the same dialectic as we pray for good weather and confront climate change. That means we must collect the relevant data, analyze it as thoughtfully and as comprehensively as possible. Then we need to define the causes, design effective solutions and spread the burden as equitably as possible. But we must always be aware of our limitations. Concerns about climate change reinforce human responsibility as humble stewards of the planet. As Jews, it plays out in our commitment to a good life that protects men and women and their God-given home on Earth. Incorporating these environmental messages into ongoing educational programs could enhance our appreciation of the holiday of Sukkot and Pesah and our daily prayers about the weather.


[1] Morena Ustulin, Changwon Keum, Junghoon Woo, Jeong-taek Woo, Sang Youl Rhee, “Effects of climatic variables on weight loss: a global analysis,” Scientific Reports 7 (2017): 40708.

[2] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/amete/2015/104048.

[3] AJ Hill, TE Dawson, O Shelef, S Rachmilevitch, “The role of dew in Negev Desert plants,” Oecologia 178:2 (June 2015): 317-27.

[4] TT Trinh, TT Trinh, TT Le, TDH Nguyen, BM Tu “Temperature inversion and air pollution relationship, and its effects on human health in Hanoi City, Vietnam,” Environ Geochem Health 41:2 (April 2019):923-37.

[5] Goudarz Molaei, Eliza A.H. Little, Scott C. Williams, Kirby C. Stafford, Bracing for the Worst – Range Expansion of the Lone Star Tick in the Northeastern United States,” New England Journal of  Medicine 381:23 (December 5, 2019):2189-2192.

[6] Nitin K. Ahuja, Health and High Water,” New England Journal of  Medicine 381:23 (December 5, 2019):2196-2197.

[7] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2010), 241.

[8] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (New York:  Henry Holt & Co., 2014), 319.

[9] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition 7:2 (Summer 1965): 32. Republished by Random House.