You can ignore the moronic mullahs. You can ignore the well-meaning Pat Robertson and his understanding of the Divine message in Katrina, South Asia earthquakes, and other sundry phenomena. Even the hardened skeptic like me, however, would not want to ignore the Gemara. Rain on Sukkos is a depressing sign. Days after a month-and-a-half-long struggle with our imperfections, ten days of pleading for our Father to let us come back home, we pour a cup for our Master, and it is thrown back in our face.
Certainly, much commentary to the Gemara dilutes its impact. It does not apply to climes in which rains come and go at all times (Aruch Hashulchan and others). Even in Israel, where the entire summer is dry and rains commence in the late fall, the bad omen applies only when the Sukkos rain launches the season, but not when precipitation begins some time before Sukkos, and continues through the holiday (Bikurei Yaakov). At times, they tell us, the rain can even be a positive sign. The Bais Yosef’s Maggid (heavenly “insider source”) informed him one year that the rains they experienced one Sukkos signified that Hashem was pleased with their Sukkos service, and augured plentiful precipitation in the coming growing season.
Alas, none of this was of very much consolation to us in Los Angeles when we first heard the predictions of rain for Monday and Tuesday of this week. No one here could remember a rained-out beginning of Sukkos in at least fifty years. (In the close to thirty years that I have lived here, we have missed fewer than a handful of nights sleeping in the sukkah.) Our climate is very similar to Israel’s; we can almost always count on no precipitation from Pesach till after Sukkos. It had indeed not rained since then, and no one I know laid claim to a Maggid conveying information from Above that we ought not worry.
We are also singularly unprepared for the effects of rain. As it is, Los Angeles almost grinds to a halt when there is significant precipitation – a nuance of West Coast life that New Yorkers find amusing. None of us have awnings or covers over our sukkas, and we’ve never considered how to waterproof the carpet on our sukkah floor.
By Saturday night, Home Depot was mostly sold out of its usually bounteous selection of larger tarps. This did not mean that families were protecting themselves from the expected deluge. Almost no one had any experience with fashioning a proper cover with a tarp. I will not quickly forget the crestfallen look on the face of a friend who triumphantly announced that he had found tarps, when I pointed out that simply throwing one over the roof would possibly do more harm than good. How was he going to control the buildup of huge puddles of water in the tarp that could bring the entire structure toppling down? How would he remove the cover without spilling the liquid load into the sukkah in one huge torrent?
By Sunday, the neighborhood had visibly swelled with visiting families. The pre-Yom Tov mood, usually electric with zeal and good cheer, was somber and dark. We dreaded the growing probability of a washed-out first night (and following day) of Sukkos.
Emerging from the mikvah on a rain-engulfed Monday afternoon, a friend tried to put a positive spin on the gloomy forcast. “Certainly the Ribbono Shel Olam must be pleased with how hard all of us are trying to celebrate Sukkos as He instructed.”
As Bill Cosby/Noah said regarding a previous spate of rain, “Yeah, right.” It sounded like wishful thinking, especially as the storm intensified with torrential downpours, wind, hail, and thunder so loud that it terrified my housekeeper.
Late in the afternoon, a concerned non-Jewish friend had the presence of mind and the consideration to swing by the house on the way from work, to see if he could help repair what he thought would be the shambles of our sukkah.
At some time – as nearly as people could tell, at about candle-lighting time, the rains stopped. Just like that. Completely and entirely. The forecast was for much more rain, so we figured that there was just another delay between a succession of showers. We rushed straight for the sukkah after Maariv, hoping to make kiddush and eat the minimum required to fulfill the mitzvah before the rains began again. (In our case, we had left one small part of the sukkah uncovered in case we would need to eat in the rain, as halacha demands on the first night.) When the rains did not follow, we tried to get in the rest of the meal. A few of us changed into work clothes, and climbed on ladders to siphon off the accumulated reservoir in the tarp with a garden hose. (Others were not so fortunate, and found that their sukkah listed precipitously under the weight of the water, or that the rains had collapsed part of their sechach.)
There was great joy in Mudville. Never have you seen Jews so happy to eat in a damp, waterlogged hut. The rains returned, but not before we finished the meal, covered the floor with plastic sheeting, and slept most of the night. They ended again just before we left for Shacharis. They threatened the rest of the day, but caused no damage or delay to the daytime meal on the first of Sukkos. After that, they departed for Arizona, or wherever. Davening in shul was especially spirited and exuberant.
My friend appears to have been right. The rains may have been a blessing. They certainly put an end to the wildfires which had caused so much damage so close to Los Angeles a mere two weeks ago.
We will never know with certainty what Hashem was trying to tell us, at least not till the return of real prophecy. But we have no doubt, in retrospect, what we were telling G-d :
We, the Jewish people, love You.
We love and cherish Your mitzvos.
We see them as opportunities and privileges, not burdens. When we cannot fulfill them, we are saddened, deflated and depressed.
We are thankful beyond words for the chance to serve You.
May You accept the service of Your people graciously and with love.