Sunday, April 03, 2011

Urban Safari

Junior's tally while walking to and from a neighbourhood on the opposite side of town: crested lark, graceful warblers, alpine swifts, male kestrel, swallow, way too many myna birds, jay, hooded crows, one porcupine quill, rosemary, lavender, hibiscus, citrus blossoms (I want to bottle the smell said she), poppies, wild mustard, crown daisies, pomegranate blossoms, bats, fox, wild wheat, wild barley, wild poppies, wild mustard and the highlight - a road resurfacing crew with a steam roller.

It was one of those really yucky spring days, sort of shravi - think threatening looking heavily overcast skies with hot, dry sticky weather and warm winds. I say sort of shravi  though because on truly shravi days it is so hazy that the sun is blotted out and sometimes you can't even see across the road. 

Today it was weirdly both intensely bright and sunny (I wore my sunhat and sunglasses and worried about sunburn) and very grey and overcast - it actually rained a few times during our walk, resulting in the following conversation:

Junior: Ima, remember to tell Abba we went walking in the maklosh!
Ima: The what?
Junior: The last of the spring rain, the maklosh
Ima: You mean malkosh?
Junior: Yes, Ima, that's what I said!

Ima: And how do you know about the malkosh
Junior: Ima, it's in Shema, remember?

This my friends is one of the many wonderful things I love about raising children in Israel - it brings Scripture to life. The Shema prayer is taken from the Bible. It is a prayer every Jew is meant to recite twice daily, something every young child is taught and every observant Jew knows by heart from a young age. 

The second paragraph talks about how if the Jewish people observe the Biblical commandments then God will ensure that the rains will fall at their appointed times so that the crops will grow and the people will enjoy plentiful harvests. 

For folks living in countries where it rains all year round this may sound trivial, not to mention a bit curious, what does it mean for the rain to fall at its appointed time, and why does the Bible have so many different words for rain - matar, yoreh, malkosh, to name just the ones that appear in this paragraph?

Israel is a country where rain comes for roughly only half the year, if we're lucky, less, if like this year we're in the middle of a prolonged period of drought. For half the year rain is a distant memory. We have no mighty rivers, only one significant natural freshwater lake, those few months of rain are our lifeline. 

When rain is that rare and that crucial, a people can get pretty fixated on when and how it falls, hence all the different names for the many different types of rain*. Yoreh is the rain you throw a party for - the first really big downpour of the season that falls between autumn and the start of winter, and just keeps coming for a while, working its miracle on the parched land. Malkosh** is the rain you wave a tearful goodbye to because it comes in late spring when you know you and the rain will be parting company for quite some time.

In my experience this is the sort of thing kids in the diaspora (and most diaspora adults I know) just aren't taught. At least I've rarely met any who have a clue what those funny words mean, besides hopefully knowing that it's rain. Now maybe my sample isn't exaclty a scientific survey and I'm not trying to disparage or offend my dear friends in the diaspora, my point is simply that this is such a central topic in Judaism that we're meant to recall it twice a day, and one which is so intrinsically tied to the Land of Israel that it doesn't make sense in many other regions of the world, yet it just tends to fall by the wayside in the diaspora because it isn't real and immediate and meaningful if you're in New York or London or Paris. 

Not that every Israeli kid knows these terms either, not by a longshot, but most do know what the yoreh is, not just because they experience that wonderful excitement first hand, but because it's usually in the news and taught in kindergarten, or as with my little girl, as soon as they are old enough for parents to say the Shema with them at bedtime.

It makes the Torah come alive and relevant in a whole new way when you can see it come alive outside your window.

I so hope that today's malkosh wasn't its last hurrah for the season.

*The really detailed answer appears in the Talmud in Masekhet Ta'anit which tells you all you ever wanted to know about precipitation in the Holyland, which types are best for which kinds of crops, how late the seasonal rains have to be before you need to start worrying and praying extra hard. That sort of thing. 

**"The Malkosh - Last Rains" by Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim z"l I was privileged to briefly be a student of Rav Kalchaim many years ago when he taught a course at the women's college I attended.

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