The rains of redemption

May the rains come pouring down!

Daniel Pinner, | updated: 10:00

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

The Rains of Redemption

Three weeks ago, on Sh’mini Atzeret, Jews the world over prayed תְּפִלַּת גֶּשֶׁם, the Prayer for Rain. And the same day, we began adding the phrase מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּשֶׁם into every Amidah.

The simple meaning of the words מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּשֶׁם is “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend”. But on another, more profound and spiritual and metaphysical level, it connotes מֵשִׁיב הָרוּחָנִיּוּת וּמוֹרִיד הַגַּשְׁמִיּוּת, He restores the spirituality and reduces the physicality.

The rainy season began in Israel last week, exactly on time, right after Sukkot. Beginning in the north of the country (the Golan and the Galilee), the next day reaching the coastal plain, over Shabbat the rains reached the south of Israel, inundating the Negev Desert.

Countless times in our holy sources, water appears as an allusion to Torah: אֵין מַיִם אֶלָּא תּוֹרָה, “there is no water other than Torah” is a frequent saying of our Sages (Bava Kamma 17a, Avodah Zarah 5b et al.); and water is frequently used as an allegory to Torah (see Ta’anit 7a; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Beshallach, Massechet de-Va’yasa 1; see also Rashi to Isaiah 55:1 and Song of Songs 5:16, Radak to 2 Samuel 23:16 and Isaiah 55:1, the Ba’al ha-Turim to Exodus 17:3, just to select a few random examples from among hundreds).


 

שׁוּבָה ה' אֶת שְׁבִיתֵנוּ כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב sang King David (Psalms 126:4), prophetically looking forward to the end of the exile and the Return to Zion, in his Psalm which is so well-known because it has for centuries served as the introduction to Grace after Meals on every Shabbat and Festival.

This is a powerful phrase, impossible to translate adequately into English.

The Jewish Publication Society of America Bible renders, “Turn our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the dry land”.

ArtScroll renders, “O Hashem – return our captivity like the springs in the desert”.

Metzudah renders, “Hashem! bring back our exiles like springs in the desert”.

The Birnbaum Siddur (Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem) renders, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the streams in the Negev”.

The original Singer’s Siddur (England, 1890) renders, “Bring back our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south”. The newest edition (modernised and re-translated by then-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) renders, “Bring back our exiles, Lord, like the streams in a dry land”.

First of all, the phrase “return our captivity” or “bring back our captivity” sounds like the exact opposite of what it means. Obviously King David was not praying for G-d to restore our captivity; rather, that Jews in captivity, meaning any Jew anywhere in exile, be restored to the Land of Israel. So the phrase “bring back our exiles” is far preferable.

What of the phrase כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב? The translations “like the springs in the desert”, or “like the streams in the Negev”, or “like the streams in a dry land” are so limp, so insipid, so uninspiring.

King David’s imagery is powerful, vivid, and inspiring.

Theאֲפִיקִים  (plural of אָפִיק) are the dry river-beds which run throughout the Negev Desert, the southern part of Israel approximately from Beer Sheva all the way to Eilat. For most of the year, the אֲפִיקִים are indistinguishable from any other undulations in the hot, dry desert sand.

And then, come the rainy season, these dry, parched wadis suddenly fill with rushing water. It is a truly awe-inspiring sight to see:

In the midst of the desert, not a drop of water anywhere, you begin to hear a distant noise. A rushing, gushing sound, at first soft and distant, slightly resembling muted thunder. The rumble becomes steadily louder, drawing steadily closer, but still with no visible source.

And then – round the bend of the desert valley comes a mighty torrent of water! Bubbling and frothing, the first several minutes sweeping tons of sand, stones, rocks, all the debris of the desert which that first overwhelming smash of water has picked up as it rushed through the ravines – those ravines which were dry desert till just a few moments earlier.

The scorched, dry sand of the desert suddenly transforms, in the space of a few moments, into a rushing, gushing, deep, foaming, roaring river, sweeping everything in its path.

And then, as those first several tons of rocks and sand are swept away, the water becomes cleaner. Within the hour, the water flowing though the desert is the cleanest, purest rain-water.

What was, but an hour ago, a lifeless and unidentifiable sand path in the desert, is now a river flowing to the Red Sea, flowing through the desert which is still barren and parched on both sides.

The אָפִיק fills with water almost without warning, in a startling and alarming transformation, terrifying in its sheer untrammelled power and unstoppable force.

This is the imagery which King David uses to allegorise our Redemption:

שׁוּבָה ה' אֶת שְׁבִיתֵנוּ כַּאֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב: when the Redemption comes, when the Jews who are exiled the world over come home, they will come as swiftly, as inexorably as the אֲפִיקִים בַּנֶּגֶב, those dry river-beds in the Negev Desert which suddenly turn into gushing, overwhelming, life-giving rivers with the onset of the rainy season.

The Return to Zion will be a transformation as complete, as astonishing, as those arid sands which suddenly transform into rivers.

King David continues and concludes his imagery of Redemption:

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ. הָלוֹךְ יֵלֵךְ וּבָכֹה נֹשֵׂא מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע – בֹּא יָבוֹא בְרִנָּה נֹשֵׂא אֲלֻמֹּתָיו. “Those who sow in tears, with joyful song will reap. He who wanders constantly and weeps, bearing his measuring-basket of seed – will assuredly come with joyful song, bearing his sheaves”.

Again, powerful and stirring imagery: the labourers in the field, not yet seeing the fruits of their labours, walking to-and-fro all day under their burdens, sowing in tears, are the ones who will reap their rewards, singing in joy.

And the one who bears his heavy load of the מֶשֶׁךְ הַזֶּרַע, his measuring-basket of seed, is the one who will gather in his harvest, singing in joy.

We have translated מֶשֶׁךְ הַזֶּרַע as “measuring-basket of seed”: this was a basket which the farmer would fill with seeds. The basket had small holes, through which the seeds would trickle slowly and evenly as the farmer walked through his field, sowing the seeds neatly and evenly. The imagery is clear.

Yet there is a peculiarity in this text: as the more perceptive readers will have noticed, I have subtly changed the word, from מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע (with a kamatz under the zayin, in the original text of Psalm 126) to מֶשֶׁךְ הַזֶּרַע (with a segol under the zayin, when explaining what the word means).

What, then, is the difference between זָרַע and זֶרַע?

The Hebrew for “seed” is זֶרַע; it changes to זָרַע at the end of a phrase or the end of a sentence. But in this verse, the phrase מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע appears in the middle of the sentence: הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֮  נֹשֵׂ֪א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע, and the cantillation-marks under and over the word הַ֫זָּ֥רַע do not denote the end of a phrase.

Indeed many printed editions of Psalms have a footnote pointing this out: קמץ בלא אס"ף, meaning this is a kamatz even though the word has neither an אֶתְנַחְתָּא (end-of-a-phrase) nor a סוֹף-פָּסוּק (end-of-a-sentence).

Why, then, did King David vowellise מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע with a kamatz under the zayin, connoting the end of a sentence, instead of מֶשֶׁךְ הַזֶּרַע, in accordance with the standard rules of grammar?

– I suggest:

The word רִנָּה, joyous song, appears three times in Psalm 126:

 

אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה, “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with joyous song” (verse 2);

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ, “Those who sow in tears, with joyful song will reap” (verse 5);

הָלוֹךְ יֵלֵךְ וּבָכֹה נֹשֵׂא מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע בֹּא יָבוֹא בְרִנָּה נֹשֵׂא אֲלֻמֹּתָיו, “he who wanders constantly and weeps, bearing his measuring-basket of seed – will assuredly come with joyful song, bearing his sheaves”.

 

The three-fold use of the word רִנָּה alludes to the three Redemptions – the first Redemption from Egypt, the second Redemption from Persia/Babylon, and the third Redemption through which we are living today.

In this Psalm, King David is rhapsodising the redemption from Egypt, some half a millennium earlier; and prophetically looking forward to the future redemption from Babylonian/Persian exile, which would happen some 500 years after he lived; and prophetically looking forward to the final redemption.

So the Jew who, in exile, “wanders constantly and weeps, bearing his measuring-basket of seed”, will sing the final רִנָּה, the final joyous song at the time of the final Redemption. And King David symbolises this by calling his measuring-basket of seed not the מֶשֶׁךְ הַזֶּרַע, but rather the מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע. The form which denotes the סוֹף-פָּסוּק, the end-of-a-sentence.

With this מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע, history comes to an end. There will never be another exile after this, therefore there will never be another Redemption after this.

Let the Rains of Redemption start pouring down!




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