Lack of rain in Israel used to be a death sentence for its inhabitants—no water to drink, no crops, etc. Now, with modern technology (such as desalinization plants), a lack of rain is serious, but no longer life-threatening. Should we still institute fast days during a dry winter?
Sometimes it is best not to reinvent the wheel, and I think this issue was covered extremely well by Rav Moshe Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion last year in the response excerpted below:
“I will begin with a blunt statement that presents what is to me absurd about fasting for rain in our day, namely that it is laughable to fast about rain when the sprinklers in yeshiva, in the houses of the rabbis, the residents and the public parks – in these sacred precincts, and in every place – work as usual. How is it possible to fast about insufficient rain when we continue to water decorative gardens, and how is it possible to open the Holy Ark and cry out regarding the lack of water when we have not made every reasonable effort to minimize the need for water?
In a more intrinsic fashion, the matter is that Tractate Taanit relates to a reality in which diminished rain causes risk to life, literally, and the fast for rain is a prayer for survival in the clearest possible way. But in a world without motorized transportation, with no capacity to convey water and food over distances with refrigeration, the absence of rain means famine, drought, and death G-d forbid. If human beings and cattle have nothing to drink, and there is no food or pasture, there is risk to life. However, in the modern reality, in which it is possible to desalinate water and import food, we are not speaking about continued existence, but rather about cost or about plenitude. Desalinating water is expensive, but it removes the threat of death.
The truth of the matter is that the ongoing water crisis in the state is not an existential crisis but rather a crisis of standard of living. If we would dry out the decorative gardens, and give up pools and sprinklers, we would lose important things that broaden a person’a mind, but we would not put our continued existence at risk. Therefore, in large measure, we are speaking of a standard of living, something for the sake of which one may hope for more rain, but it is not correct to decree a fast because of the absence of sufficient water to maintain the current standard of living.
In simple words, a fast is a response to danger, and in the modern reality, the risk that absence of rain posed in the time of Chazal does not threaten us.”
Rav Lichtenstein makes another critical point later in his letter:
“Do we love at such a high level of Providence in our day, such that we are able to take natural events and translate them into spiritual guidelines? The interconnection between nature and Providence is a complex question, and I am neither able nor desirous to establish fixed points regarding it, but it seems that prevention of rain for spiritual causes assumes a non-negligible level of Providence, and I am at the very, very least not certain that our current spiritual condition justifies this.”
I would add that the purpose of a fast is to improve the virtue of the Jewish people as a whole, which makes it hard to see the virtue of declaring a fast when one knows in advance that most Jews will ignore it, leaving aside the numbers who will mock.
Praying for rain in Israel during times of drought has always been controversial. The Talmud (Ketubot 106a) reports that Rav Joseph refused to advocate such prayers and the Jerusalem Talmud reports that third century Rabbi Hanina refused to pray for rain during a time of drought even though Rabbi Joshua ben Levi did. It seems that their objections had nothing to do with whether or not a drought was life-threatening but with the efficacy of prayer in influencing God’s will. Yet the tractate of Ta’anit deals largely with the ritual response to drought and potential famine, recognizing that any shortage of rain is life threatening in a country that relies on rain for irrigation and drinking water. That is true even today. While modern technology has ameliorated the problem of drought, it is has not solved it. Thus praying for rain has not been rendered unnecessary even though it has not been proven effective. Further, Jews operate under the rule requiring all individuals - regardless of their personal views - to join with the community once a prayer or fast has been declared by a community’s recognized religious leaders.
Your question is one of those questions that bridges the more rational part of Jewish minds with the more superstitious parts of the same mind. After all, weather can not be controlled by prayer. Rain and snow are not bound by our goodness or our sins. In fact, this issue was so problematic that, rightly or wrongly, the Reform movement removed those paragraphs from the V'ahvata. Personally, I find it insulting to God that we think God withholds rain for sin and rewards us with good weather.
But, in the context of those who survive on rain, the question of rain is vital.
It was natural to find this discussion in the Talmud and, indeed, it is there. When are there supposed to be fasts to bring the rain? Who fasts? How long? And so forth. A whole lengthy discussion ensues to answer these questions. The foundation of these questions, though, is the belief that God is in charge of the weather and that somehow prayer, sin, good, etc., is all tied up into the question of whether God waters the trees.
I firmly reject this notion. But, at the same time, I still believe it is a valuable tradition because of what it does teach.
It teaches us that our actions have consequences. There is nothing wrong with praying for rain if it inspires us to reflect and ask God's help opening our minds to what we have done to our environment. How have we impacted the world with our pollution? Is water a right or a gift? Do we worry more about filling our pools than we do about working toward the causes of clean water in desperate countries where hundreds of thousands die each year because they lack clean water? Our sin is the sin of waste and, yes, even in Israel which is holding its own water-wise, would be wise to constantly reflect on how that water is being used. Prayer helps that. It won't bring the rain but it will bring wisdom.
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