Friday, October 30, 2009

rain water in Israel, good or bad?

Today was the first time it rained in Israel in the current winter season. In Israel rain is precious. Unlike in the states, today is an unofficial holiday; everyone is happy that rain has finally come. At the town in which I reside, Qiryat Malakhi, there is lots of parched earth and dust but little grass or even weeds. Folks cannot overcome this challenge by irrigating their yards since there is a shortage of water. Natural rain water is the only practical way of generating plants and greenery as well as supply water for human consumption.

As I was pondering the benefit of rain, as contrasted with its nuisance status in the states, The verse in Deut. 11:11 came to mind:

For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.

God contrasts The land of Israel with the land of Egypt, the former being irrigated by the Nile and the latter relying on rainwater. At first glance we are bothered: why mention this? According to historical and scientific data, we know that rivers are a better source of water for agriculture than rain; the very first "civilizations" sprang up along the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers as a result of society's ability to produce excess agricultural produce in such fertile regions. Why would God point out a negative aspect of the land of Israel?

So we must be misreading the text. Gos is pointing out this contrast in order to show a positive aspect of the land of Israel, namely, that its residents must turn to God for help with their agriculture; they cannot rely on the natural, assured course of events. Or, more precisely, that God shows a "special interest" in this land by actively bringing rain upon when needed, as opposed to abandoning its fate to the natural course of events as is the case in Egypt.

It's like a teacher who is giving special attention to a weak student in the class and then makes a point of it, saying: You are "special". Unlike the other students (who are smart enough not to require extra help) you get my undivided special attention at times, so that you will understand what is being taught in class.

But is this really a compliment? I suppose that in our culture the above-cited example is more likely to be taken as an insult than as a compliment, and rightfully so, it seems. But the Biblical author, in his naivete, genuinely thought that God's "special attention" is more valuable than the superior natural environment in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

My question is: Is there any truth to such an idea? Note: that the existence of God and his ability to favorably single out one nation from the rest does not have to be established in order to investigate this matter. My question is: In the minds of the biblical authors of Deut (seventh cent. BCE), who evidently operated on such assumptions, does this positive idea regarding their "special status" have any rational basis?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes! Let me sashay into Greek culture for a moment in order to illustrate this. While the Ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Egyptians and early Persians were the masters of the civilized world, the Greeks were not on the map yet. They were barley managing to survive in the tough climate of their native hilly mountains of Attica and Peloponessus. What happened? What propelled them onto center stage? Well, it was necessity! They had no choice! In order to survive, they couldn't rely on the accepted practice of agriculture and were forced to seek out an alternative. They thus became shipbuilders and seafarers, merchants and tradesmen. For the first time in world history, there was a people who found themselves in a unique position to absorb a wide array of cultural information from the various people they encountered in their travels and to redistribute that information and culture in an improved form. In other words: they initially set out to trade material goods but what turned out to be far more important is the much more "profitable" trading of ideas that their adventures enabled them to accomplish. Democracy, Philosophy, Mythology and Logic are just a few of the Greek inventions that were so influential in catapulting them into stardom. It is precisely the humble origins of the Greeks that guaranteed them center stage in the future.

We all know that the Ancient Israelites have likewise left an indelible and most valuable legacy to world civilization: religion. All contemporary western religions have their origin in the ideas that circulated in seventh century Judea. So, we must ask, what was so special of them after all?

The answer seems to lie, as the case is with the Greeks, in their adversity, not their material successes. The Judeans, were FORCED, unlike inhabitants of the major civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, to constantly be on the alert: will there be the Early rain (yoreh, in the month of heshvon) to break up the ground for ploughing? Will there be late rain (malqosh, in kislev) to provide nourishment to the seedlings? They were forced to conceive of elaborate cause and effect relationships concerning a universal all-powerful God who is creditable and responsible for their successes and failures. Unlike Egyptians and Mesopotamians who "couldn't fail" (their crops grew reliably year after year), Judeans were forced to ponder the question during years of famine: why has our God forsaken us? What did we do wrong? How can we improve going forward? This self-critical modus operandi proved to be invaluable to the world!

Remember this rule: success generates failure and failure generates success. The USA, the strongest country in the decades following WWII, is now doomed to swap positions with China, the weakest major power in the world. I am concerned about the future of the the West (including the USA) and if history is a reliable guide, there is, alas, nothing we can do to reverse the long but inevitable process in which the USA and China reverse roles.

edited 6/29/2011