In the dry and arid desert of a continent far from ours, East Africa is currently experiencing its longest and most severe drought on record. With the arrival of a fifth consecutive season of poor rainfall, more than 30,000 people, including 15,000 children are at risk. These people pray for rain.
We too, pray for rain. Despite all of our modern inventions and ultra-fast, high-tech lifestyle, we are still very much dependant on rain.
Yet on the flip side, rain can also be a curse. Particularly in areas where the ground is hardened and unreceptive to the lashing rain, flooding is an inevitable part of heavy rainfall. In fact, the recent storms across the country have cost us more lives than wildfires in the past two years combined.
Whilst rain is a blessing that sustains life, too much rain is also a curse that has the ability to destroy life. Rainfall without a receptacle to hold it, and without a soft and absorbent ground ready to accept and utilize it, is nothing but damage.
This Hebrew month, the month of Shevat, is the month of rain. Indeed, its zodiac symbol is the Aquarius, the water-bearer. However, unlike the month of Cheshvan, Shevat’s rain is all about growth and blessing. In fact, many point out that its name is an acronym.
The Hebrew letters שבט stands for ‘שֶׁנִשְׁמַעֶֶׁׁ בֶׁׂשּורֹות טֹובֹות’ – ‘may we hear good news’. Shevat is our lucky month; heralding in the plenitude of the upcoming seasons. It represents that fine line, that beautiful delicate dance between too much and too little. It is the blessing of rain carried carefully in a bucket, to be distributed throughout the universe in the perfect amount.
And therefore, it is on the 15th of this month, at the height of its fullness, that the trees awaken from their winter sleep, that life stirs and blossoms, and where any rainfall from this point onward is another step towards the produce that will blossom in the coming spring.
Taking a closer look at the word ‘geshem’ – rain, we find the word ‘gashmi’. This word translates as materialism, earthly pleasures, physical blessings. Rain gives us livelihood, and encapsulated in our prayer for rain is the request for livelihood, for plentiness, and for everything materialistic.
Yet as many of us know, too much blessings and wealth can create egoistical proud people, intent on chasing materialism and forever in pursuit of an increasingly distant goal. Physical blessings are only good inasmuch as we make ourselves into receptacles for it, as long as we channel and elevate it to improve our relationships, our actions, and ultimately our connection to G-d, to help us shape our lives in the path of the good. Otherwise, we are at risk of being swept away and drowned beneath an abundance of materialism.
Becoming accustomed to using our blessings to enhance our spiritual life takes time. Change is slow. Yet let us not forget that we celebrate the ‘Birthday of the Trees’ in the very middle of the cold and dark winter, when the trees’ barren limbs still seem grey and lifeless. Because we know that despite their exterior, somewhere beneath the surface sap is sluggishly circulating, warming the trees’ cold limbs and preparing them to blossom and flourish.
We must have the foresight to envision the end results of our efforts, to know that investing our resources now into our spiritual life will one day achieve great things. Because whilst growth may only be clearly visible in the future, in retrospect, the stirrings are taking place now. We may only be changing slowly, but we are changing, and we are growing.
The kabbalists tell us that we are currently living in the Age of Aquarius, which is also known as the Age of Revelation, or the Age of Redemption. These months, and indeed these years, are a time of renewed inspiration, where we can use our G-d given blessings to bring about the redemption of ourselves, and in truth the redemption of the entire world.