What is there to do when we face a natural disaster such as droughts? Just this summer of 2012 we suffered one of the most severe droughts, including last year’s drought in the South Central states and an extreme five-year drought in the American West a decade ago.
In April of 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke: “Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” But after the rain had not arrived, he said in a speech in May, explaining how some of the nation’s most serious problems could be solved: “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this”. In Jul 18, 2012, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was praying for rain to bring relief from the drought; “I get on my knees every day,” Vilsack told reporters at the White House today. “And I’m saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.”
What were these politicians thinking? Did they honestly believe that prayers for rain will affect the cosmos? Did they really believe that prayer and fasting for rain will stop a drought? According to anthropologists, prayers help people cope and feel that they are not helpless and can exercise a degree of control during unpredictable and uncontrollable events. This is the power of rituals, prayers, sacrifice and magic, which extract meaning, unity and peace of mind by doing something that make the connection with the divine stronger. Thus, the Native American tribes, for example (mainly in the Southwest) perform a ritual dance to ensure rain. This is their yearly summer Rain dance (known as the Snake Dance), when rain is needed for crops and droughts most often occur. Before the dance itself, the priests retreat to an underground religious structure (kiva) for 12 days, where they fast and pray.
In the Mishnah and the Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit), there are many sections that are specifically dedicated to instructions of what to do during droughts. The rabbis instituted communal fasts, public prayers and sounding the horn when a drought was happening. They also included many prayers for rain in the winter times, and for dew in the summer time, standardizing them in the liturgy.
A fascinating story about control and act of compelling the divine during a drought is in the Gemara - Ta’anit 23a. During a severe drought in Israel and after communal fasting and prayers rain did not come. The people approached their community sage, Honi, known as the “Miracle Maker”. He was able to directly communicate with God. He even had the liberty to engage in a chutzpadic dialogue with god;
Once it happened that the greater part of the month of Adar had passed and yet no rain had fallen. The people sent a message to Honi the Circle Drawer: “Pray that rain may fall”. He prayed and no rain fell.
He drew a circle and stood within it in the same way as the prophet Habakuk (2:1) had done, as it is said: ‘I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower etc.’ He exclaimed [before God]: “Master of the Universe, Thy children have turned to me because [they believe] me to be a member of Thy house. I swear by Thy great name that I will not move from here until Thou hast mercy Upon Thy children”!
Rain began to drip and his disciples said to him: “We look to you to save us from death; we believe that this rain came down merely to release you from your oath”. Thereupon he exclaimed [to God]: “It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rain [to fill] cisterns, ditches and caves”. The rain then began to come down with great force, every drop being as big as the opening of a barrel and the Sages estimated that no one drop was less than a log.
His disciples then said to him: “Master, we look to you to save us from death; we believe that the rain came down to destroy the world”. Thereupon he exclaimed before [God]: “It is not for this that l have prayed, but for rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty”. Then rain fell normally until the Israelites [in Jerusalem] were compelled to go up [for shelter] to the Temple Mount because of the rain. [His disciples] then said to him”: “Master, in the same way as you have prayed for the rain to fall pray for the rain to cease”.
He replied: “I have it as a tradition that we may not pray on account of an excess of good. Despite this bring unto me a bullock for a thanks-giving-offering.”
So, as rain was still not satisfactory, Honi continued with his demands;
They brought unto him a bullock for a thanks-giving-offering and he laid his two hands upon it and said: “Master of the Universe, Thy people Israel whom Thou hast brought out from Egypt cannot endure an excess of good nor an excess of punishment; when Thou wast angry with them, they could not endure it; when Thou didst shower upon them an excess of good they could not endure it; may it be Thy will that the rain may cease and that there be relief for the world”. Immediately the wind began to blow and the clouds were dispersed and the sun shone and the people went out into the fields and gathered for themselves mushrooms and truffles.
It is clear that the Talmud does not really approve of magic or miracles and is ambivalent about them. However, there still is a Honi, who works like a shaman in a community. The head of the Sanhedrin was about to excommunicate Honi because of his practice to compel God, but Shimon ben Shetach excused Honi of his merit to have this special relationship with God.
What can we learn from the story of Honi and what does it teach us about the power of prayer?
So, how different is this story from what the Native American do when they dance to bring rain?
In the age of weather predictability technology – do we still need to pray for rain, or is prayer alone a tool to help us deal with horrible situations?