This post originally was posted to the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning.
Earlier this week in the Pacific Northwest we waited for a storm that wasn’t.
A big storm of heavy rain and strong wind was predicted to hit Washington State, the remnants of a typhoon in the Pacific. While coastlines had increased activity, including a rare tornado hitting the Oregon Coast, further inland the result was underwhelming. And while some people lost power and a few trees came down, the storm was not as devastating as originally predicted.
The storm was supposed to come the day before Sukkot, the fall harvest festival in which we mark the turning of the season and the ancient story of our spiritual ancestors who, after leaving Egyptian slavery, wandered in the desert for 40 years. One of the main observances is the building of a sukkah, a temporary structure decorated with natural elements in which we “dwell” over the course of the week.
The sukkah is a symbol of vulnerability: a shelter that ultimately does not offer complete protection. It is susceptible to the elements; the roof made of natural materials is meant to be slightly open in order for us to see sunlight during the day and the stars at night. (It was ironic to be thinking about how this week the elements themselves might interfere with the construction of the Sukkah.) The sukkah is fragile, and when we sit in the sukkah we are, while covered, still exposed.
In anticipation of the storm and its increased wind and rain just prior to the holiday, I thought of another, less obvious Sukkot observance. During Sukkot we make a change in our liturgy, more specifically to the Amidah, the standing silent prayer. During the summer months—from Passover to Sukkot—we acknowledge God as the one who brings “down the dew” (“morid hatal”). On Sukkot we switch to acknowledging God as the one who “causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” (“mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem”) and will continue to recite this until Passover.
The change in the liturgy is an acknowledgement of the change in weather that comes with the onset of fall. At the same time it is a petition, that we need the wind and the rain over the fall and winter in order to have a successful season of growth and harvest in the spring and summer.
We can understand the prayers for rain. Rain is an ancient symbol of abundance shared by many cultures and traditions. We know that we need water to grow plants and food, we know how devastating a drought can be. The Torah time and time again acknowledges the blessing that is rain, and how timely rain is a symbol of reward. As we make our way towards fall and winter, the time when nature goes dormant and light decreases, it is only fitting that we both acknowledge the blessings of abundance that enrich our lives and offer hope for continued blessings of abundance.
What about wind? A story I heard in a yoga class recently opened my eyes and heart to the power of wind:
Biosphere 2 was an experiment in Arizona in the early 1990s to recreate, indoors, Earth’s different ecological systems. Scientists then lived in Biosphere to learn about human adaption and sustainability within a self-contained environment for possible application to space exploration as well as a general understanding about human interaction with the environment.
One of the challenges (failures?) of the experiment was that the trees within Biosphere would grow too fast and would end up toppling over before they reached maturity. Scientists discovered that the complete absence of wind in Biosphere was the cause; trees need the exposure to wind in order to develop “stress wood” or “reaction wood” that allows them to grow stronger and more stable. It is in exposure to wind that trees are able to develop the resilience they need to fully thrive.
My yoga instructor noted how it is not the absence of stress and pressure that make us strong, it is the stress and pressure themselves that makes us strong. Wind, therefore, is the symbol for resilience. When we pray for wind we are praying for the resilience to grow strong in the face of difficult conditions.
This Sukkot prayer, which we will continue to recite for the next six months—“who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”—is a prayer for resilience and abundance. It is exactly these that we seek when we dwell in the fragile sukkah and recognize our vulnerabilities.