Working wonders in mysterious ways

What is the difference between “a force of nature” and “the hand of G-d”? For the last couple of  months, ever since winter officially began here after Simchat Torah, we have added to our daily prayers two ritual, yearly expressions that continue to be said up until Pesach: one that acknowledges that at this time of year G-d “makes the wind blow and the rain fall”, and another that entreats G-d to “give dew and rain for a blessing”. However, the drought that has characterized Israel’s climate so noticeably for the last several years continued up until the last few days, with scarcely a drop of drizzle felt anywhere in the country. High daily temperatures even into December were usually in the 80’s or 90’s, and only the cooling nights betrayed a semblance of the season. Although a combination of dew and irrigation kept Israel’s greenery fairly green, the water level in the Sea of Galilee continued to descend.

A few weeks ago, the Chief Rabbis of Israel requested that everyone add to another of the daily prayers a traditionally prescribed, longer and more intense expression that beseeches the Master of the Universe to heed our calls and prayers for rain. More people recited additional Psalms on a daily basis, both individually and in large, loud groups. Yet still, the heavens withheld their bounty.

Against this climatic and prayer-filled backdrop we witnessed the horror of last week’s catastrophic inferno on the Carmel mountain, which took so many lives, destroyed homes and entire villages, and devastated so many families. Whether it was caused by carelessness or deliberate arson remains to be determined, but from my standpoint, if G-d hadn’t wanted it to happen, it wouldn’t have. The explanations, whys and wherefores at the metaphysical level I leave to those who claim to be more enlightened than I.

And yet, strangely perhaps, not twenty-four hours after the flames were mostly curtailed through the (Divinely-guided) efforts of mere mortals from within Israel and from abroad (thank you, friends), the few smoldering remnants were drenched and finally extinguished by a heavenly downpour that lasted most of a day.

We continued our additional prayers, since one day of rain was not enough. Finally, yesterday evening, the winds intensified — gusting strongly, howling through window gaps and rattling anything that wasn’t tied down firmly. It has persisted all through today, and a friend of mine has just posted on Facebook that the palm tree in his garden has been brought down. We ourselves moved the potted vegetables indoors from our fifth-floor balcony, to reduce the stress on those leaves and stems that weren’t already withered. With the wind has come more rain — not a lot, but noticeably more than drizzle.

Yet despite needing precipitation, this isn’t the benevolent kind one usually hopes for. Breslev Israel has just posted the following on Facebook: “We prayed for rain. We got it – as a dirty, insanely windy, cold, just enough rain to get everything covered in muck storm. Hashem is telling us that we still need more teshuva! Thank You Hashem for this storm, please give us a free gift and send us clean rain to wipe it all away!” One of the people commenting on this announces, “It has been raining like crazy in the Galil since Friday night!!!!”, but another describes only “sandstorms in the Negev”. Geographically, we’re about located halfway between the two regions, not far from the Mediterranean, so we’re experiencing the storm in a different way. The weather stations in the north are reporting snow and/or sleet at Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. All this meteorological variety in a country about the size of New Jersey!

I suppose that what’s really wondrous about this is that, despite the losses in the Carmel last week, due in great part to the uncontrolled spread of small shrubs and dry underbrush, one does not want to contemplate what the scale of destruction could have been had today’s windstorm taken place a week ago.  If there’s a silver lining in the clouds of smoke and rain this week, that could be it.

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Inspired by Chanukah

Some time ago, I took on the daily habit of reciting a section of Psalms, usually immediately following Shacharit (morning worship services). The book of Psalms is composed of 150 chapters, each a separate Psalm, and the book has been divided into easily manageable sections, so that one need read only a few chapters per day to complete a monthly cycle.

A few days ago, I noticed an interesting phenomenon for the first time, though I am sure I am not the first to do so, nor to comment on it. I will explain what I mean by starting with a little background for those not familiar with this practice:

The monthly recitation cycle is, quite naturally, divided into 30 daily sections, corresponding to the longest possible month in the Jewish calendar — the months last either 29 or 30 days, and those months that last 30 actually count the 30th as also the first of two “first” days of the following month (known in Hebrew as “Rosh Chodesh“). In brief, this is due to the fact that the calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, which last approximately 29 1/4 days. (When a calendar month lasts only 29 days, the daily sections of Psalms for both the 29th and 30th days are read together. The cycle of reading then begins anew on the following day, the first of the new month.)

Back to the phenomenon referred to above: Last Wednesday was the 24th day of the month of Kislev, the day before the night-time candle-lighting marking the first day of Chanukah, which always begins on the 25th of Kislev. (Since the Torah in Genesis uses the phraseology, “It was evening and it was morning, one day”, Jewish tradition holds that a new day actually begins at nightfall, not at midnight as in Western culture.) As I was reading the six psalms for that day (chapters 113 through 118), I realized that they are the ones that are recited in the Hallel prayer, that set of psalms that are recited on days of special celebration, including almost all Jewish holidays and Rosh Chodesh.

But there is an abbreviated form of Hallel read on Rosh Chodesh (as well as on the last 6 days of Passover): the first half of both Psalms 115 and 116 are not recited, for various traditional reasons. However, on Chanukah, they are recited in their entirety, although each is recited in two parts. In other words, those first halves that are often NOT read, ARE read on Chanukah first, followed by a brief pause, and then the second halves are read. As I said above, there are 6 Psalms in Hallel, but on Chanukah, it can seem like 8, due to the pauses that are made between halves.

So on the day before the commencement of the 8-day Festival of Lights, when we would recite “eight” sections of Psalms in Hallel, we are given a preview of the celebration by essentially reading Hallel in its entirety in those six Psalms of the 24th day of Kislev.

And as an interesting side note, Kislev is a 30-day month. That means we will have a 2-day observance of Rosh Chodesh of the month of Tevet, as I described above. However, since this particular Rosh Chodesh always coincides with the 6th and 7th days of Chanukah, Hallel will be recited in its entirety, not its abridged form.

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