Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Praying for rain in Israel is something that happens all over the world, wherever there is a Jew who prays. When a Jew in Boise, Idaho prays for rain, he is praying for rain in Israel. You can puzzle out the spiritual, philosophical, or practical reasons for this yourself. Suffice it to say that when it rains in Israel, we are very, very happy, and especially the women, who tend to see rain as a spiritual blessing, and talk about it girlfriend to girlfriend, perhaps on Whatsapp (emojis not included here):

Girlfriend 1: I am so happy it’s raining.

Girlfriend 2: Yes! Beautiful, beautiful rain.

It’s not only girlfriends who talk about the rain. It may just as well be women of slight or even no acquaintance. A few years ago, I went to get my wig (pe’ah) done at a little shop in Geula. It’s the place I’ve gone to ever since I bought my first wig: the wig for my wedding. 

It was raining outside and while I was waiting (you don't make appointments here, you sit and wait and take whatever hairdresser becomes available first), the Chassidishe proprietor’s daughter and I had a little chat about the wonderful water falling from the sky.  The winter night had come early, and with it, the rain. “This is “gishmei bracha,” she said to me. “When it rains at night and doesn’t cause us any inconvenience.”

It's exactly the kind what we pray for the skies to rain down on Israel. Rains of blessing.“Gishmei bracha,” because there’s rain and there’s rain. There’s rain that comes at the right time, in the right way—but sometimes not. There can be rain that falls just right at the right rate, not too much, not too little. But that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes there is even rain that turns to ice and snow. It’s not the way the rain is supposed to fall in Israel. Ice wreaks havoc on agriculture. It's why you have to be conscious and think about these things when you pray for rain. You want to pray for the right sort of rain. Rain that is rain and not ice or snow.

And here’s where things get tricky. Snow is a rare and beautiful event in Israel. When the snow does come down, we get excited, as we watch it cover our beloved land with a blanket of white.

Barely a dusting on Netzach Yerushalayim St. in Efrat, on January 22, 2022 (photo, Moshe Epstein)

It’s counterintuitive. We want to sing—preferably something like, “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.”  But no matter how clear the sound in our heads of those imaginary dulcet strains, we know that the snow is killing our avocados, citrus fruits, and potatoes. These will all be scarcer and more expensive, each in their season. Because what happens now affects later supply and demand, and in Israel we feel this the most in regard to our fruits and vegetables.

For this and other reasons, we pray for rain, and not for snow. And still, last Wednesday we had a light dusting that lasted a short time. Thursday morning, my son the agronomist shared photos of a frozen avocado tree. They were not his photos, but were being shared widely among those in agriculture (and just plain Zionists who cannot resist a good natural phenomenon in Israel).

“My son the agronomist” is Gedalia (Gidi) Epstein, an insect management scout at a citrus farm in Netivot owned by the company Mehadrin. We love to talk plants when we’re together, and I like to hear him explain his work to me. Gidi doesn’t just know about insects, but all kinds of things about plants. Being that we have another snow predicted to begin right as this piece goes to publication, I asked Gidi to explain the impact of snow and ice on Israeli agriculture:

Basically, the problem with the cold weather is that frosts tend to occur during the night and early morning hours. When that happens, the cells responsible for photosynthesis are damaged and then when the sun comes up, it burns these cells, causing the leaves to dry out. This essentially renders the tree leafless and then it can’t put out the energy or do whatever else it needs to do in order to allow the fruit to keep on growing. That’s in the best case scenario.

In the worst case scenario, cells in the plant freeze, and what happens is the water contained in a cell will crystalize—it turns into ice and crystals and these expand the cells until they explode. It’s kind of like putting mashed potatoes in the freezer—it never works because the cells crystalize and blow up and then the entire texture is ruined. So the same thing happens in living plants.

In plants other than potatoes, whether it’s an avocado tree, or even as in our case with citrus, the little sacs (vesicles) inside a tangerine, for example, they blow up, they break, and then the fruit is no good. Not only is the texture ruined, but the fruit gets a bad taste, too.

My son then added that the solution is to cover the trees with special nets that create a warmer microclimate from within. The problem is that the nets are expensive, setting them up is labor intensive, and they get in the way of farming machinery like tractors. More primitive solutions have failed.

“Lately we’ve seen—like with the photos of the iced-over avocados—sprinklers that water the trees from above. They’re set to go on and off through the night and early morning. The theory is that spraying the trees with water helps keep the trees from freezing, but actually, the opposite happens.

“This time,” said Gidi, referring to last Wednesday’s brief freeze, “the trees froze worse than ever.”

There is one beneficial aspect to snow in Israel. Mount Hermon is considered Israel's only true mountain. Its three peaks are covered with snow in winter and in spring, making it a wonderful place to ski for both tourists and native Israelis. Skiing, however, is not the only reason that snow on the Hermon is beneficial for Israel. When the snow on the Hermon melts, it does great things for Israel's water supply and flora

Melt water from the snow-covered mountain's western and southern bases seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River. Additionally, the runoff facilitates fertile plant life below the snow line, where vineyards and pine, oak, and poplar trees are abundant.

Snow-topped Mt. Hermon

Mt. Hermon is covered with snow even when the rest of the country is not. So it need not concern us as we pray for rain. But as another freeze approaches, some wonder if the winter weather in the rest of the country, and its impact on agriculture, might have a deeper, more spiritual component. 

Could the cold and snowy weather be related to the fact that it is a sabbatical year in Israel? A sabbatical year, or "shanat shmitta," is a time of complicated laws, the upshot of which is that fields are meant to lie fallow. Are we observing the relevant commandments as we should? There may be a connection to our current weather situation. Or not. We cannot know these things, but we can think about them and keep them in mind.

Meantime, most of us cannot help but get swept up in the excitement of snow, even as we know it's not a good thing. For this reason, confusion reigns (get it?). We want it to snow. We don't want it to snow. 

And we pray for rain, throughout. 

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