In Jewish folklore, there are many stories about droughts, which makes sense, since the Jewish people originated in the Middle East, where the rainy season is fairly short, from October to March, followed by the rest of the year when it doesn’t usually rain at all, and the water that fell in the winter needs to be strictly conserved to last for the whole dry season. If the rainy season is poor one year, that makes water conservation even more important, and drought something to be consistently concerned about. Because of this, the last of the fall holidays, Sukkot, ends with a prayer for rain.
Now every story about a drought is actually a story about the person who managed to end the drought. And what is unique about these stories that have been told for thousands of years, is that this individual who manages to end the drought and bring rain is never a person that the community would expect to be a successful rainmaker. It is never the most learned in the town, never the most powerful in the city, never the wealthiest in the village. It is always someone very surprising on one hand, and totally not surprising on the other hand.
These stories are usually told just before or during the High Holy Days, which are the fall holidays of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of the booths. Tonight is Erev Yom Kippur, when the 26 hour fast and day of repentance begins, so in honor of Yom Kippur, I tell you this story, which I have adapted to more modern times and put in a country not unlike our own. The story is called The Question of Balance.
The country where the story takes place was going through a really tough time. The gap between the wealthy and the poor was getting larger. Discomfort between different racial groups, ethnic groups and religious groups, something that had supposedly faded away decades ago, was now actively bubbling to the surface, and angry mobs were demonstrating against each other, sometimes hurting each other. The country was terribly divided politically, with the idea of compromise, of balance, all but out the window. On top of that, a terrible plague had descended on the entire world, making human contact even more problematic, because the virus was airborne, so people were afraid of each other. And, perhaps worst of all, though it is hard to know in this list which is the worst of all, people’s action had finally started influencing nature, rendering large parts of the country uninhabitable, parts of the country that had once been lush and green and perfect for growing the food needed to feed the citizens of the country were now either suffering from drought and forest fires, or covered in flooding and erratic hurricanes that brought terrible rain storms. It simply felt like there was no balance left at all.
This country was divided geographically by a large mountain range, running north to south. There were many small cities and towns up on this mountain range, and the people in these mountains were not suffering the same climate changes, though of course every other item in the list of current woes was very present in their daily lives. From their mountain top perches, they could see the fires to the west and the rainstorms and flooding to the east. People from the west and the east were making their way up into the mountains to get some respite, and the mountaineers were welcoming them.
Rabbi Tzadok was the rabbi of a small synagogue in one of the small mountain cities. It was three days before Yom Kippur, and he was sitting in his study, which had windows to both the east and the west. He was preparing his sermon for the Erev Yom Kippur services. As a Rabbi, he had heard all of the stories about the righteous ones of the past who had been able to bring rain in the time of drought. He was a modern man, and didn’t believe in miracles or magic or folk tales. And it wasn’t just rain that the country needed now, because the East had too much rain. No, what was needed was some balance, to bring both the rain to the west and dryness to the east. As he looked at the fires in the west and the flooding in the east, he thought to himself, “If only the rain from the east would swing over the mountains to put out the fires in the west, and if only the dryness of the west could dry out the flooding in the east.” And wouldn’t that be something to bring that for Yom Kippur? To give the country some respite on that evening of greatest holiness?
That night, Rabbi Tzadok had a dream, where a voice was telling him to call Hannah to come lead the prayers. The voice kept saying that Hannah could bring balance. When the Rabbi awoke in the morning, he was confused. It took him a while to remember who Hannah was. He slowly realized that she was the petite Muslim woman who ran a small grocery store in the south side of the city. Rabbi Tzadok often shopped in her store as she had the freshest vegetables and fruit in the entire city, and very reasonable prices. Besides that, it was just a pleasant store to shop in because Hannah always had a warm, welcoming smile, but Rabbi Tzadok realized that he had never actually heard her speak. He had also heard rumors that she had some kind of disability, and maybe that explained why she rarely spoke. As the Rabbi thought more about Hannah, he shook his head at the craziness of the dream. How could Hannah lead the prayers? She wasn’t Jewish, she certainly didn’t know Hebrew, and she most likely had never even heard a Jewish prayer. The dream didn’t make any sense. But maybe, the dream was telling him to pray in a special way, so if he and a minyan of the most learned members of the community prayed fervently, maybe rain would come to the west and sun would come to the east. So, he sent out a message asking these ten men to come and join him for evening prayers, and that evening they did just that. But nothing changed.
That night, Rabbi Tzadok had a second dream, with the same voice telling him to call Hannah to come lead the prayers. The voice reminded him that Hannah could bring balance.
Well Rabbi Tzadok woke up in the morning, amused that he had had the same silly dream. He respected Hannah for sure as a merchant who ran an honest business, but really, the thought of her leading prayers for balance in the synagogue was absurd. No, the Rabbi thought, what he needed to do was convene the whole community, to try and pray for balance together. That might do the trick.
He got busy calling his congregation, asking them to come join him for a special prayer service in the evening. To his surprise, everyone came. Somehow, the small sanctuary was big enough for everyone to sit with enough space between them to keep themselves safe. As he explained his vision, they all were rejoiced to be asked to help, and it was an especially beautiful evening of community prayer. But nothing changed. Out the windows of the synagogue, one could still see the fires to the west and the floods to the east.
That night, Rabbi Tzadok had the same dream as before, for a third time. But this time the voice was more insistent, saying, “The only way you are going to bring your prayer to fruition is to call on Hannah.”
Well, they say three times a charm. When Rabbi Tzadok woke that morning, he realized that he just had to go and speak to Hannah. He got dressed, grabbed his mask, got on his bicycle, and rode over to Hannah’s store in the southern part of the city.
When he entered the store, there were very few customers, which the Rabbi was happy for, since he was a little embarrassed about what he was going to ask Hannah. He saw that she was in her usual perch, over at the counter behind the cash register. She had on a transparent face shield, and Rabbi Tzadok could see her ever present beaming smile clear across the store as he walked towards her.
“Good morning Hannah, I don’t know if you remember me, but I am Rabbi Tzadok from Sha’arei Shamayim Synagogue a bit north of here.” Hannah smiled bigger and nodded, indicating that of course she remembered him. The Rabbi took a deep breath and continued to speak. He explained to her about his vision to bring balance to the climate issues ravaging the country. She smiled more sadly, acknowledging that she recognized the same needs. He explained about the Jewish prayers for rain, and how he had altered the prayers to bring both rain and dryness, to bring balance to each part of the country according to it’s need. She nodded and showed her interest. And then he told her about his dreams. Hannah looked at him with large eyes, slightly worried. She shook her head and put her hands over her heart, indicating that she was sorry, but she just couldn’t do that. The Rabbi said to her, “I know this request seems really unusual, and it is unusual to me too, which is why it took me three nights of the same insistent dream to even come and visit you.”
Hannah answered in the smallest, the most halting, of voices, “Dear Rabbi, I really can’t do this. I am not good at speaking in front of crowds. And I am a Muslim, I don’t know anything about Jewish prayers. I don’t even know what you call God.”
Rabbi Tzadok nodded, and said, “We call God Adonai, and I know that this seems odd. But I have a feeling that whatever voice is telling me to speak to you also knows all of that. I think you just need to pray from your heart, with no concern about language or specific words. My whole community will welcome you, and you could bring your community and whoever else of your friends and customers you feel would be the right people to help in this prayer.”
Hannah sighed, closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath, and said, in that same small, halting voice, “I do not know why I should lead this prayer, but I agree with you that it is very important, and I will come this evening. I don’t know what I will say, but I will come.”
Rabbi Tzadok thanked her effusively, feeling in his heart that this was totally the right thing to do! He hurried back to the synagogue, contacted all of his community again, and invited them yet again to come that evening for one more very special prayer session before Yom Kippur.
And to his surprise once more, the entire community came. They all entered the sanctuary somberly and looked at the Rabbi standing at the front, waiting for him to speak. He quietly said, “We are waiting for some guests.” Within a few minutes, there was a small, very timid knock on the door of the sanctuary. One of the members jumped up, opened the door, and was taken aback to see Hannah, carrying a large box, followed by her community from her mosque and close friends and customers of her store of every faith and background. They all nodded quiet hellos to the Jewish community members sitting inside as they filed inside and found seats. Somehow the small sanctuary seemed to expand its walls and there was room for everyone. The Jewish members quickly got over their surprise and welcomed the guests. Hannah took a seat in the back with her large box.
Everyone turned expectantly back to the front of the sanctuary and looked at Rabbi Tzadok. The Rabbi in turn looked expectantly at Hannah. Hannah silently shook her head and sank deeper into her seat, trying to hide. The Rabbi stepped off the dais and walked to the back to speak with her quietly. The entire room stared, and watched as Hannah took a deep breath, and gave a small nod. The Rabbi offered to take the big box, and she agreed. They walked back to the front together and turned around to face the congregation. Rabbi Tzadok put the box down on the table and left the dais and sat down in the front row. Hannah was visibly shaking, but she took a breath, reached into the box, and pulled out the scales from her store, the scales that she used to weigh her customers purchases, the scales that were considered “old-fashioned” but that resembled the traditional scales of justice.
Everyone in the congregation looked slightly amused, wondering what on earth Hannah could possibly be doing with her store’s scales at the front of the synagogue. But they all wanted to be polite to their guest in this place of worship, so they quickly adjusted their faces to erase the amusement and instead show respect.
Hannah took another deep breath and turned her small face to the ceiling. Though her voice was quiet, somehow it could be heard easily throughout the sanctuary. “Allah, or Adonai as my hosts call you, God, you know I am a simple woman. I do not usually lead prayers or speak in front of congregations. I run my store and live a modest life. The only reason that I can think of that you wanted me to lead this prayer is that you know that I am an honest woman. I have never lied in my life. And I maintain my scales totally honestly, never tipping the balance one way or the other, always charging only for what the item weighs. In the same way that I maintain honest balance in my store and in my life, I beg of you to bring balance to what is happening in our country now. Please bring rain to quench the fires in the west, and please bring dry days to roll back the flooding of the east. Perhaps this will also bring balance to the anger and division rolling throughout our land.”
Everyone bowed their heads in prayer, and suddenly, a huge wind blew over the skylight of the synagogue. As everyone looked up, they could see the rain clouds from the east blowing over the mountaintop to the west, and as they looked out, they saw the fires starting to go out. Then a second sudden wind blew over from the west, and everyone inside could feel the heat and dryness that it carried, and as they looked to the east, they could see the wind blow the flood waters back towards the river banks and ocean beds.
Hannah was as astonished as anyone, and they all looked at each other in wonder. But then another look of understanding started to spread through the congregation. Everyone in the audience, this audience of every different possible religious and ethnic background, used scales of some kind in their everyday life, in their work, in their relationships…that evening, after everyone had made their way home in the changed air, every scale in the city went through small, often imperceptible corrections. Because it was a question of balance.