A Time for Rain

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Olga Lempert


And I shall make them dwell around My hill for a blessing, and I shall bring down rain in its time; they will be rains of blessing (Ezekiel 34:26).

On the 387th day of the drought, the daily report of the factory, gingerly placed on Joel Bar Yehia’s desk by his secretary Pinchas at eight precisely, read: “24-hour production total: zero.”    

“Son of a kalbata!” Joel swore. “Pinchas! Get Rabbi Josiah in here!”

“Yes sir. Right away, sir.”

Pinchas knew not to dawdle when his boss was this irate. Within five minutes, the factory’s Chief Rabbinical Engineer, a stout man with bright red peyot curling under his black hard hat, was standing before Bar Yehia.

“Rabbi, what is this I see before me? Zero production yesterday? Is this a mistake?” Joel asked almost gently. He knew better than to raise his voice at his CRE, who was responsible for programming all the factory’s golems and could easily put Joel out in the streets, along with everyone else.

“No sir. No mistake. God willing, we will do better next week, though if the drought continues, that is unlikely,” the rabbi murmured.

“How did it get to that? We were at fifty-two units the day before!” Joel moaned.

“Yes sir. We used our last stores of shems for those fifty-two units. I don’t have anything to program the new golems with.” Rabbi Josiah’s tone was subdued but dignified. Joel would be hard-pressed to name one time when the CRE kowtowed to anyone. Merciful God, the man caused Joel to feel as primitive as the mud constituting the lowliest golem.

“But why can’t we inscribe new shems, Rabbi?” he asked plaintively, cursing himself internally for sounding like a child.

“Cows, sir. The drought has reduced pastures almost to nothing, and the farm whose non-red heifers supply our parchment is struggling to stay afloat. They aren’t doing any shechitah.”

“And we don’t have any backup parchment left?”

“None, sir.”

Bar Yehia rubbed his palm forcefully down his face, as if trying to erase the frown that seemed to have etched itself in his features. He knew that each day the factory stood idle cost millions of shekels in lost profits, but that was scarcely the extent of it. The entire industry was highly contested, despite the undoubted convenience it afforded and the sorely needed savings it provided in the long run to the state’s depleted coffers. The ceaseless expansion of golem use and their increasing visibility were deepening the political rifts in society, and in a drought, tempers ran hot.

The previous week, there had been a demonstration at the golem facility, people screaming Aramaic obscenities and waving posters with images of Baal. Astonishingly, these protesters really believed that going back to “the way things were in the good old days” would solve the raging unemployment and poverty in the country. To them, the culprits in their inability to afford a mortgage were none other than the golems who were taking over their jobs, and as the golems were inanimate, whoever produced and programmed them must be to blame. No matter that the golems only took over for machinery and unskilled labor. To the masses, their advent equaled a dire future made entirely out of clay. Hence the increase in violent accusations of idol worship.

He raised his eyes back at the rabbi who was standing there calmly, seemingly unperturbed by the boss nearly having a meltdown right before him. It was no good, but they still had one last resort.

“Can we get a me’aggel?” Joel asked.

Rabbi Josiah faltered for a second before answering, “All the reputable ones are working in the big circles the government installed in Beit Shean, Ashkelon, and Jaffa. The entire economy is compromised by the drought, and they need all hands on deck.”

Picking up on the hesitation, Joel persisted, “Could we get someone… less reputable? Compromise is fine, as long as we can get the lines moving again.”

“Well, sir, we do have one possible specialist, but he’s… uh…”

“Out with it, Rabbi, what is his deal? Is he not very good? Was he a reality contestant? Will he want non-kosher takeout in the circle? What?”

“No, no, nothing like that. He won’t want any food in the circle, because he’s a golem,” the rabbi blurted out like a man plunging into a frozen river to escape a forest fire.

“A golem!? Who the gehinnom put the Honi Method onto a shem?” Joel was aghast.

“Actually, I did. Or rather, I authorized it, and young Levinson in my department did it. His idea, but really, we have been exploring this kind of specialized golems for a while now. We have one that makes demon wards too, and a tithe-calculating one. It’s all a part of the five-year development plan which you approved, sir,” said the CRE with a subtle reproach in his voice.

True, Joel had been remiss with his paperwork lately and signed many reports without reading them thoroughly. But giving golems advanced prophecy? Putting them in charge of the most intimate imaginable human interactions with God? This was going too far, even by modern standards. On the other hand, his back was to the wall, and his head was on the line.

He groaned, “Don’t you understand, Rabbi? If the media gets wind of this, we’re done for, through! Are you looking for another rally out there? It will be so bad this time, you won’t be able to leave the office without getting stoned! If anyone finds out that we are giving the golems such powers, all gehinnom will break—”

At this stage, the door of the office would have creaked were it not made of frosted glass and placed in a well-oiled railing, for young Pinchas had pushed it open a narrow crack and stuck his long nose inside.

“What is it, Pinchas?” Joel asked, a little breathless after his proclamation of doom, which the fellow had unexpectedly cut short. “Anyone to see me?”

“No, Mr. Bar Yehia. It’s just—if I could put in my trei zuzei, sir?” the secretary stammered.

“Figures you’d be listening,” Joel muttered. “Fine, go ahead then. Everyone’s got ideas, oy.”

“Sir, we could test the golem me’aggel in the clay yard, where nobody external can see,” Pinchas suggested.

The idea is not half bad, Joel thought to himself, furrowing his brow.

The clay yard was the heart of the factory, fully enclosed between its buildings. It was there that the gigantic vats of clay were kept, their humidity and temperature carefully supported by complex machinery and teams of factory golems working shifts. From these vats, the clay was conveyed onto the production floor and molded into pre-shem golems, which were then sorted by size and function and passed into the hands of the Rabbinical Programming department led by Rabbi Josiah. Their shems installed, they were able to walk independently back to the clay yard, where massive clay ovens awaited to make them good and firm for distribution.

“Fine,” he resolved. “Rabbi, make your preparations and have the grounds crew install a circle in the yard. We will run tests tomorrow. But as God is my witness: if anyone lets anything slip…”

“Of course, sir. All my engineers are quite discreet,” the rabbi assured him.

As soon as Joel connected his car to the charger and stepped inside, the tiny, well-trained housekeeping golem scuttled over with his coffee and slippers, with Mrs. Bar Yehia at its heels. Funny, he thought to himself for the thousandth time, how she can be almost Marxist about human-sized golems yet so content about having mini ones servicing the house.

“You are home, my tyrannical industrialist baron!” she laughed.

“Yes, my nagging luddite of a wife,” he chuckled back, pulling her into his arms.

Everyone who knew the Bar Yehias was envious of their loving relationship. Introduced by Miriam’s college roommate Rachel, they had been married for over a decade and had lost none of their easy rapport and genuine care for each other. If there was any truth in their ill-wishers’ conjecture of resentment over their childlessness, it was never brought up and never affected their familial bliss. They had a fond way of needling each other, irony combining with true adoration in every sentence.

The only point of contention was their politics, and perhaps due to Miriam’s quiet wisdom in the matter, they had no rows over it, preferring instead to treat it with humor and leave it at that. In their youth, they had shared leftist views, but Joel was recognized early on as a gifted engineer, granted all sorts of scholarships, and practically pushed into a career in the most cutting-edge field of industry—golems. From there, he had no choice but to veer right as he rose through the ranks and moved from engineering to management, or he would be unable to reconcile his ideology with the increasing salaries and progressively glossier perks that allowed them to remain comfortable even in the severe recession caused by this drought.

Miriam, who was pursuing a PhD in history, was skeptical about this technology at first and eventually became ardently opposed. It was only out of respect for her husband that she was not seen carrying Baal posters and screaming slogans outside the factory. Still, as Joel had noted just now, this stand did not prevent her from enjoying the household comforts provided by the smaller machines. To this, his wife always retorted that the little ones were not taking anyone’s job and were unlikely to go murderously crazy, either. Privately, he thought her understanding of the issue somewhat simplified but would never be so foolish as to tell her that.

They sat down to dinner—rice and chicken meatballs, which Miriam had made herself. She had old-fashioned ways, his little wifey, he thought affectionately. After a day teaching high school history, she still felt the need to cook her husband a hot meal. And her resourcefulness in keeping this up even despite the current food shortages was a true feat of old-school housekeeping.

“I’ve told you, honey, you can just let the clay take care of it,” he cajoled mischievously, knowing that the derogatory term would make her flare up, then subside, confused—while opposed to the proliferation of golems, she was still too gentle and kindhearted to abide the use of such slurs.

Miriam just shook her head and changed the subject.

“How was work, darling? Put any elderly people out of their jobs to starve?”

“Yes, tons. Several thousand at the very least. Mmm, did you do something different with the meatballs?”

“I was hoping you would notice!” she exclaimed, happy at this little success. “It’s cinnamon!”

“Really? That doesn’t sound half as good as it tastes. How on earth did you come up with this?”

Master Chef, season 119,” she confessed with a slight blush, even though he had never implied her love of cooking programs was anything other than endearing.

“You always get the best tricks from that show,” Joel nodded, absently handing the golem his coffee mug to wash and refill. He was doing his best to be present, to focus on the lovely minutiae of his wife, the light radiating from her face at their reunion and easy conversation, and the joy filling their little private refuge from the tumult outside—not to dwell on the outrageous prospects of tomorrow. But the worries were encroaching, and he could not help it. This was the kind of thing that truly tested his beliefs.

“What bothers you, darling?” She was ever perceptive.

“Oh, nothing. Work stuff.”

“You can tell me, you know. Even if we disagree about your monstrous profession, I still care about the things you’re going through.” Miriam leant in and put her palm on his shoulder. He wilted miserably under its soft warmth.

“It’s the drought. It is killing us, decimating our output. The proceeds—”

“Must be awfully hard, love,” she encouraged.

“Well, it’s not even that, but Josiah—you remember Rabbi Josiah, the CRE—he has had the strangest idea, and I told him to go ahead with it, but, oh, this may be the mistake that ruins me!”

He buried his face in his wife’s shoulder and let her soothe him, gently lead him away from the table, and tuck him into bed—into their plush blankets, into sleep, into thoughtless, worry-less darkness. Tomorrow was tomorrow, and he did not need to think about the abomination awaiting him until then.

It must have taken the grounds team hours to get the circle ready, but it was done by the time Joel got to work, even though anxiety catapulted him out of bed almost at dawn, and he was in rather earlier than usual, eyes sunken and cheeks shaded. The Chief Rabbinical Engineer, on the other hand, looked almost perky, his team scurrying about with clipboards, the satanic young Levinson shining with pride at his side. Joel could not force out a hello, so he merely blinked and moved further into the yard to take a look at the circle.

The damn thing was perfect. Any vague hopes Joel may have had of scrapping the endeavor on a technical fault immediately ran aground. The mechanics stood next to it beaming, clearly expecting praise for their hard work. This was, after all, the first rain circle ever built at the factory. They had worked from the public domain blueprints provided on the Weather Ministry’s website and against all odds had achieved an excellent result. He could not bring himself to look into their faces, but neither could he disappoint and discourage these men.

“Well done, team, quality work. Couldn’t ask for anything better,” he mumbled, gaze magnetically locked onto the impeccable lines of the circle.

“Just hope that it gets us some rain, eh, boss? Cows need feeding,” the head technician guffawed. This was inarguable. The heifers did need feeding, and the only way to get them fed was to have even a little rain, as these spoiled cattle would not deign to eat anything less than the extra-fresh meadow grass to which they were accustomed. Joel shook himself out of it. No two ways about it, he thought, we need a me’aggel and we got one—this is just like the coffee golem at home, only scaled up…

Now Levinson and two other engineers were leading out the new prototype. He had to hand it to them, the golem was well made. It was sleek, coated with water-repellent paint—a nice touch, Joel privately conceded—and modeled with sturdy legs for standing fast in a circle and unbending arms raised up as antennae of sorts, the better to appeal to the Heavens. A testament to the progress of modern technology.

Placed in the center of the circle, the golem seemed to root itself to the ground. It appeared intent on staying in place until its mission was fulfilled.

“Circle powered up, golem ready,” intoned Levinson, remote control in hand. “Engaging Honi Method in three… two… one… Go!”

The previously dim light in the golem’s eyes blazed at once. From deep within its clay body, a reverberation sounded, a basso profundo declaiming the same sentence over, and over, and over again, like a dark curse, like the distant rolling of thunder on a pitch-black night: “Not for little rain, not for harmful rain, but for rain of benevolence, blessing, and generosity we ask, O Master of the Universe. Not for little rain—”

Joel felt a wave of awe wash over him as he realized that the golem’s was the only voice in the entire yard. Work had halted. Everyone hovered around the circle, staring at the gleaming figure of the man-made me’aggel in the middle. Everyone, including the factory’s golems. They had carefully put down their tools and surrounded the humans, standing a silent vigil, eyes smoldering, bodies, molded for their various jobs, leaning slightly forward, as though the things were waiting for something. Impossible, he thought, they are not programmed to do this. Or were they? His CRE had apparently been experimenting with alternative protocols. Could he have allowed his men to—what was the word—humanize the golems? Joel’s blood burned icy cold in his veins.

Say what you will about the work of a me’aggel. It is undoubtedly monotonous, the stubborn stillness of a desperate man butting heads with God. It is ridiculous to all appearances: a man throwing a tantrum in a circle, refusing to leave it until he gets his way, the parched land of Israel spreading around him as far as the eye can see. Its duration is unpredictable: you may find yourself shelling out the hefty fee after ten minutes or having an extra mouth to feed for weeks on end. But it is also the only reliable method known to bring rain after a drought.

The golem worked tirelessly for thirteen hours. Everyone had long gone about their business, and it still stood there, rumbling like an elephant, its clay mates stopping mutely to observe it whenever they had a moment to spare. Joel tried taking Rabbi Josiah to task for allowing this oddity in their programming, but the man was unrepentant.

“We find that the men work better alongside them when they are not entirely mechanical, sir,” he said.

“How can that be, when outside the masses are clamoring for my head and yours precisely because they are frightened of these humanlike chunks of clay taking over for flesh-and-blood people?”

“Well, sir, as much as I can understand it, and really, young Levinson tells it much better, there is a narrow window of opportunity after they are lifeless tools and before it goes all uncanny. Would you like me to fetch Levinson, sir, so he can take a stab at explaining?” Josiah offered.

“No need, Rabbi. Please, just set someone to oversee the yard; make sure the golems aren’t distracted from their work. I know we don’t have any shems left, but we should be able to prep enough molds to have a running start once the farm goes through a round of shechitah.” Joel waved a tired hand at the CRE and waited for him to leave before slumping in his chair with a heaving sigh.

The paradox defied reconciliation. Humans were never satisfied when it came to golems. To hear Rabbi Josiah tell it, they were disturbed by entirely mechanical golems; yet, besotted with their place at the top of God’s creation, they raged at the slightest sign of anyone approaching them in appearance, behavior, and capacity, so golems could not be made too intelligent either, lest they threaten to displace people.

While Joel disagreed on general principle, driven in part by the natural desire to see his work as useful and beneficial as opposed to dangerous and harmful, he had profound misgivings when it came to such a delicate realm as religious ritual. The unique relationship of man and God had until now suffered no substitutions, even with the extent to which life had become automatized in the last century. The leap between letting a golem fetch your slippers and letting it appeal to God on your behalf was simply too great. Was it Martin Luther that said a man ought to do two things alone: his own praying and dying? Well, while golems were unable to live or die in people’s stead, they were starting to encroach on the prayer. He felt this was at the very least too slippery a slope to hop onto as blithely as Rabbi Josiah and his upstart protégé were doing.

And yet still, he understood both the need for technological advancement and the dire straits in which they found themselves presently. True, people were discomfited by working alongside golems, but would they rather lose their jobs because the factory had to close? A few more weeks of this drought would make this a real possibility, and no other circle-makers were available.

He wondered how Miriam would have reacted, had he told her the whole story the night before. Even worse, how she would react if this insane undertaking actually worked. He suspected he knew; even more, privately he agreed with her, and that made him none the happier. At the thought of his wife, Joel glanced at his watch and dialed their home number.

“Sorry, dearest, looks like I’ll be spending the night at work,” he began, when cries broke out from the yard. “Or not, I’ll call you back, okay?” he sputtered, already running.

Outside, it was just past sunset, and the sky yet retained muted, pastel reflections of the dazzling palette the sun had spread before settling under the horizon. Not for long, however, as dark clouds were fast rolling in, gathering as though from nowhere and concentrating over the factory.

Unbidden, everyone in the yard held their breath and each other. It felt necessary to find another’s hand, shoulder, or back, to connect to the human in the presence of all this—otherness.

Still the golem spoke. “For rain of benevolence, blessing, and generosity we ask, O Master of the Universe,” it repeated undaunted, undeterred. Now, its thunderous voice seemed to be coming from all directions, or perhaps, launched from its belly, it was returned by the bellies of the clouds. Now, its unmoving form appeared to be a mountain, a tower of Babel, a vast conduit for powers unknowable and unbearable, an impossibility, an insolence gehinnom-bent on provoking the inevitable moment when the Heavens would strike it down.

Around it, men and golems stood unbreathing, and the fires of ancient clay ovens burned in eyes set deep into clay faces.

And drops of rain began thudding to the ground. Large, sparse, then quicker and denser, until columns of slate-colored glass connected the skies to the ground and stilled, the flow of water now too swift to be observed with the naked eye. Joel’s hair was soaked. His clothes were drenched.

“It worked,” the young Levinson whispered reverentially.

And the vise of primal terror clenched Joel Bar Yehia’s heart and twisted. Something had broken in the world and could never be fixed again.

Olga Lempert was born and raised in Lithuania. She now works at the National Library of Israel and is completing her MA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Bar-Ilan University. She has been translating prose for over a decade, including Lithuanian translations of works by David Grossman, Etgar Keret, and David Fishman.