The following is based on a holiday message from my friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman.
Tu B’Shevat (Arbor Day), which begins this year on Sunday night, January 16, is the day dedicated to an appreciation of the abundance of fruits in which our land is blessed. The Mishnah speaks about an unusual rule connected to abundance. Normally, “For every trouble—may it not come upon us—we sound the alarm”; i.e., when we encounter troubles and difficulties, we pray to God, fast, and blow the shofar. However, there is an exception: “We do not do this for an abundance of rain” (Ta’anit 3:8). While an abundance of rain can sometimes become a huge problem, the Mishnah says that we never pray for rain to stop. The matter is explained in the story of a first-century BCE sage known as Choni the Circle Drawer. During a year of severe drought, Choni drew a circle on the ground, stood inside it, and swore to God that he would not leave the circle until it rained. God responded to Choni and then some—to the point where the people came to Choni and said, “Rabbi, just as you prayed for the rain to fall, so pray for the rain to stop.” He answered them: “I have it on tradition that one never asks for the cessation of an abundance of good” (Taanit 23a).
Choni the Circle Drawer teaches us that when God showers upon us great abundance, there is an expectation that we will know how to contain this abundance. Except for extreme cases, rain only becomes problematic if we did not prepare properly, if we did not build channels and reservoirs to receive the water that overflowed from above. When abundance is the source of the problem, the solution does not reside in requesting for it to cease, but in our opening up to that abundance. It is up to human beings to trust in God and to see that they can contain the abundance of good, and henceforth they must strive to prove that they are worthy of the great gift.
In the story from the Oral Law, Choni the Circle Drawer does finally ask God to stop the rains, but in his prayer he points an accusing finger at the people of Israel who did not find the strength to accept the good: “Lord of the Universe, your people Israel, whom you took out of Egypt, can stand neither good nor calamity. If you get angry, they cannot stand, and if you bestow goodness, they cannot stand. May it be thy will that the rains should cease so that there will be ease in the world.”
It is interesting to note that the rule according to which one does not pray for the cessation of good applies only to those living in the Land of Israel; in the diaspora, it is permissible to do so. The ability to contain abundant goodness is special to the Land of Israel and will peak at the time of our redemption.
Rabbi Abraham Kook says that the fact that our land is a land of abundance indicates that the people of Israel are endowed with the ability to contain such abundance without spiritual decline: “The promise that our land will be blessed, that it will be a land overflowing with milk and honey, is a sign that Israel will ultimately attain exalted status.”
On Tu B’Shevat we pray to God to give us wisdom and knowledge to prepare ourselves in the most appropriate way so that abundance will be for us a blessing and not a curse.
By Teddy Weinberger