Our agrarian ancestors well understood the beneficence of rain. Shemini Atzeret celebrates the anticipation of rain with a special prayer in which we acknowledge God as the source of rain. This prayer, the central distinguishing feature of the holiday, marks the onset of the rainy season in the Land of Israel. Blessing God as the rainmaker also ties in to the Sukkot holiday.
Upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish people immediately go to a place called “Sukkot.” (Exodus 12:37) The midrash likens this to a groom (God) who is in such a hurry to be with his bride that he sets up the wedding canopy (sukkah) right outside her door. This, and other examples, lead us to imagine Sukkot as the week long wedding celebration between God and the Jewish people. If so, Shemini Atzeret symbolizes the beginning of married life. There is a rabbinic interpretation of the holiday which complicates this cosmic romance in a surprising way.
The midrashic work, Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer, posits contrasting results of soaking rain. Rain spawns weeds and wild growth but also may engender bountiful crops. The former is compared to the consequences of an out of wedlock dalliance and the latter to the rewards of an orderly and disciplined marital commitment. Setting aside the quaint traditionalism of this framing, it seems the principals have been delightfully reshuffled. God is still the “groom,” but the land has replaced the people as the “bride.” The people, however, are not without a role to play. If God is to “marry” the land, someone must serve as the officiant who will bless this union. The Prayer for Rain on Shemini Atzeret becomes the blessing which unites God and the world in holy matrimony. The lifegiving benefits of rain are not only blessings received, but blessings facilitated.
Rabbi Mitch Levine