Bechukotai: Whose prayer?

If you walk in My statutes and observe My commandments faithfully, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. (Vayikra 26:4)

The pilgrim, dusty, footsore,
trudges slowly home.
Under the blinding sun he treks,
desert wind howling at his back.
The heavens darken swiftly:
raindrops splash his face.
In his mind, a prayer arises:
“Stay the rain until I’m safe!”
His thoughts return to the Temple:
God’s providence felt so clear.
His heart, still filled with wonder, knows
that the land cries out for rain.
The downpour is God’s blessing –
rainfall in its season.
He walks serenely on,
a steady smile upon his lips.

On Yom Kippur, we are told, the High Priest would recite a short prayer for rain. The Talmud expands upon this short prayer, which ends with a seemingly strange request: “May the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence.”

The plain meaning of the phrase “rains in their season” is simply that the rain will fall in the right season in Israel. Rain that comes too early or too late can play havoc with the crops. Rashi, however, based on the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 35:10) interprets it as rain falling at times when people do not usually go out on journeys, for example on Friday nights.
In his book Peninim Yekarim, Rabbi Shimon Betsalel Neuman,* quoting the Yalkut HaGershuni, expands on this theme based on a story from the Gemara (Ta’anit 24:2) about R’ Chanina ben Dosa who was out walking when the rain began to fall. He said, “Master of the World! The whole world is at ease and Chanina is in trouble.” The rain stopped. When he arrived home, he said, “Master of the World! The whole world is in trouble and Chanina is at ease.” The rain came down. R’ Yosef asked, “How does the High Priest’s prayer [that the wayfarer’s prayer be disregarded] work with regard to R’ Chanina ben Dosa?” Rabbi Neuman cites the phrase, “If you walk in My statutes…” He asks if all Israel will be righteous and through each one the saying will be realised: “The righteous person decrees and God fulfils,”(Ta’anit 23:1) – then when will the rain fall? For there will never be a time when someone is not on the way and will pray for the rain to cease. So God will give the rain on Friday nights when all of Israel is at home.

In an article entitled The Prayer of the High Priest, Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim asks, “When have we ever seen a negative request before? A request which calls for blocking other people’s prayers?” He cites Rabbi Shimon Shalom Kalish** of Amshinov (1882–1954) who wonders who these wayfarers are and whether they are righteous? R’ Shimon Shalom Kalish asks whether it could be that the righteous pray that rain not fall on the Land of Israel at a time when the earth needs it so much? Or whether it could be that the prayer of the wicked be received on high and that rain be prevented from falling because of them? And he gives the answer, “The Talmud is speaking about a simple Jew who has labored all day to earn a living, and, on his way home the rain falls heavily. His wagon becomes mired in the middle of the path. Soaked through, he shouts, “Oy! How will I get home?” His shout is heartfelt and it demands a response!”
Rabbi Kalchaim says “Many prayers come before the heavenly hosts. Some of them are saturated in tears, and sometimes the prayers contradict one another. Who will determine which prayer enters first, and which will have to wait?”
So the High Priest requests that “the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence.” Israel needs rain and the people cry out to God, so the priest prays that the welfare of the entire people will take precedence over that of a single person.

*Rabbi Shimon Betsalel Neuman authored the Peninim Yekarim, a popular commentary on the Torah, Prophets and Ketuvim, and aggadot in the Talmud. (I cannot find any certain biographical details but it seems he was born in 1860 and died (was killed?) in 1942. Peninim Yekarim was printed during World War II when Hungary was already ruled by a pro-German government in the shadow of the Holocaust. It is comprised of approximately five hundred articles selected from other works, both old and new from previous rabbinic sources.

**Rabbi Shimon Shalom Kalish (1882–1954) was the Rebbe of Amshinov–Otvotsk. The son of Rabbi Menachem Kalish he succeeded his father on his death in 1918. He was a major driving force behind the exodus of thousands of young men in Mir, Kletsk, Radin, Novhardok and other yeshivot, via Russia and Japan to Shanghai at the outbreak of World War II. By the time Shanghai came under Japanese control, it held 26,000 Jews (Shanghai Ghetto).
As World War II intensified, the Nazis stepped up pressure on Japan to hand over the Shanghai Jews. The Japanese military governor of the city sent for the Jewish community leaders. The delegation included R’ Shimon Shalom Kalish. It is said that the Japanese governor was curious and asked why the Germans hated the Jews so much. Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer, Rabbi Kalish told the translator (in Yiddish): “Zugim weil mir senen orientalim — Tell him the Germans hate us because we are Oriental.” The governor, apparently, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, smiled slightly. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.
After the war, Rabbi Kalish moved to the United States but when he died in 1954, his son Rabbi Yerachmiel Yehuda Myer Kalish (1901-1976) brought his body to Israel for burial and he remained in Israel.


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