Parashat Eikev / In the Garden of the Lord

Rainfall is regarded not as a natural phenomenon like comets and earthquakes, but rather as an integral part of the network of communication between God and man.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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The Nile
The NileCredit: Jialiang Gao
Yakov Z. Meyer

The Mishna lists the various blessings one should say when confronted with unusual natural phenomena: “Regarding comets, earthquakes, bolts of lightning, thunder and strong winds, one should say, ‘Blessed art thou whose power fills the universe.’ Regarding mountains, hills, seas, rivers and deserts, one should say, ‘Blessed art thou who created the universe.’ Regarding rain and good tidings, one should say, ‘Blessed are thou who is good and who is good to others.’ Regarding bad tidings, one should say, ‘Blessed art thou, who is a true judge’ (Mishna, Tractate Berachot, Mishnah 9:2).

These special blessings are divided into those recited in connection with phenomena that one sees, and those recited over phenomena that one hears. Those which are seen are regarded either as divine revelations in the contemporary world, or as reminders of divine revelations at the dawn of time, when God created the universe. These phenomena are essentially signs that one interprets by means of a blessing.

In contrast, natural phenomena that one hears are also interpreted by means of a blessing but are not understood as indications of God’s presence; instead, they have a communicative dimension. Audial phenomena are divided into good and bad, and the relevant blessings are divided accordingly. Although God’s power fills the universe through nature, he expresses his positive or negative opinion by means of phenomena that can be heard, and by means of the good or bad news that people transmit to one another.

A notable exception in this category of blessings is rainfall. Although one could assume that in this case the blessing would be “Blessed are thou whose power and courage fill the universe,” as for lightning and thunder – the above Mishnah groups rainfall with the blessing that one recites upon hearing good news.

Rainfall is regarded not as a natural phenomenon like comets and earthquakes, but rather as an integral part of the network of communication between God and man. Through rainfall, God speaks to man and conveys his opinion of man’s actions.

The Gemara discusses why, when witnessing rainfall, one should say in certain instances, “Blessed are thou who is good and who is good to others,” rather than “Blessed art thou whose power fills the universe” or “Blessed art thou who created the universe.” One interpretation is that it depends on whether the person viewing the rainfall owns land. If he does not own land, he should recite one of the latter blessings associated with acts of nature that are seen. However, if he does own land and thus needs rain for his crops, he should say: “Blessed are thou who is good and who is good to others,” which one should say on hearing good news (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, p. 49b).

The sages did not invent this attitude toward rain; their approach faithfully echoes that of the biblical ethos expressed in Parashat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) : “For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou didst sow thy seed, and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down; a land which the Lord thy God careth for; the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year” (Deut. 11:10-12).

Egypt’s economy is river-based; the water of the Nile is ever-flowing, and all one has to do to irrigate one’s crops is to draw water from it. In contrast, the Promised Land’s economy is totally dependent on rainfall, and consequently under God’s constant gaze. Rainfall in the Land of Israel is thus not a natural phenomenon but rather comes under the category of good tidings.

The Land of Israel’s economy is preferable to Egypt’s because it demands that one interpret rain as God’s favorable response to one’s actions, and therefore allows one to be an active partner in the relationship with the Creator; that is expressed in the blessing recited in a spirit of thanksgiving. In contrast, in Egypt, neither prayers nor blessings are needed, because it is a land of abundance. In the subconscious of Israel’s prophets, Egypt’s economy is referred to, in various images and metaphors, as embodying what will eventually be an era of total redemption.

Zechariah declares, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem: half of them toward the eastern sea, and half of them toward the western sea; in summer and in winter shall it be” (Zechariah 14:8). Thus, the spring from which the Land of Israel’s version of the Nile will come forth will emerge from the Temple in Jerusalem and will irrigate Canaan’s arid land.

And Ezekiel, for whom this scene is a natural phenomenon that can be seen, describes how “waters issued out from under the threshold of the house [the Temple in Jerusalem] eastward, for the forefront of the house looked toward the east; and the waters came down from under, from the right side of the house, on the south of the altar … And he said unto me: ‘Hast thou seen this, O son of man?’ Then he led me, and caused me to return to the bank of the river. Now when I had been brought back, behold, upon the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other. Then said he unto me: ‘These waters issue forth toward the eastern region, and shall go down into the Arabah; and when they shall enter into the sea ...’

“And it shall come to pass, that every living creature wherewith it swarmeth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live; and there shall be a very great multitude of fish; for these waters are come thither, that all things be healed and may live whithersoever the river cometh ... And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow every tree for food, whose leaf shall not wither, neither shall the fruit thereof fail; it shall bring forth new fruit every month, because the waters thereof issue out of the sanctuary; and the fruit thereof shall be for food, and the leaf thereof for healing’ (Ezekiel 47:1-12).

According to the prophets’ vision of the “economy of total redemption,” water will naturally flow to all parts of the Land of Israel; however, unlike in Egypt, this flow of water will be the expression of God’s constant concern for the Promised Land.

The identification of the land of Egypt with the vision of the Promised Land during the era of redemption also is mentioned, almost as a casual aside, elsewhere in the Bible. When Abraham proposes that he and his nephew Lot part company to avoid any friction, it is written, “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar” (Genesis 13:10).

The land of Egypt is a worldly representation of the garden of the Lord. It is the land of beginnings as well as the land of the end of time, when redemption will arrive.