Is Rain a Miracle?

What are the odds of this?

Starting this Sunday evening, with the festival of Shemini Atzeret, observant Jews add a brief passage in the middle of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy.  Addressing God, the line reads:

You cause the winds to blow and the rain to fall.

It’s hardly surprising in one sense: with the beginning of autumn, it stands to reason that a line about stormier weather would be added.

But there is a weird aspect to this addition: the ancient Rabbis (Mishnah Berachot 5:2) decreed that this line should be added right after a provision that lauds God for “raising the dead”.  That seems almost like the paradigmatic example of an anticlimax: “You raise the dead — and even cause the rain to fall!”  What’s going on?

In the Gemara, (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 33a), Rabbi Yosef provides an explanation as to why his forbears had constructed the prayer in this way.  In the same way that raising the dead is a miracle, he says, sending rain is a miracle.  So it makes sense to put the two together.

My initial response to this was: how quaint!  Although the rabbis might have regarded rainfall as a miracle on par with resurrection of the dead, of course now we know that it is simply part of nature’s climatic cycle.

But then I thought better of it.  Perhaps another way of thinking of Rabbi Yosef’s argument is that the ancient rabbis were believers in the Rare Earth hypothesis, or the Great Filter.  If you believe these things — and while hardly proven (how could they be?), they are certainly plausible — then the fact of rainfall on earth is in fact something akin to a miracle.  The odds of intelligent life developing on a planet, in this model, are extraordinarily small.  And yet here, on this planet, it has developed.

The Earth is 93 million miles from the sun.  92 million miles would make it too hot; 94 million miles would make it too cold.  Very tiny changes would have precluded human life from existence.  Yet here we are.

One doesn’t have to believe in a sentient Supreme Being, reaching out and zapping Earth to create human beings, in order to appreciate the special and unique quality of intelligent life, or the enormous gift that a supportive biosphere is.  All one has to do is maintain gratitude — to Whomever — that that biosphere exists, that it is very rare, that it is truly wondrous for it to be here, and that we are here to benefit from it.

What a miracle.

Chag Sameach l’Moadim Simcha to all.

, , , ,

Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Is Rain a Miracle?”

  1. I think this is overdone: “The Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. 92 million miles would make it too hot; 94 million miles would make it too cold. Very tiny changes would have precluded human life from existence. Yet here we are.”

    The sun’s brightness has increased by about 30% over the history of life on earth. On very long time scales (tens of millions of years), the climate system has some strong negative feedbacks that have allowed for life to hang on: when it gets too cold, weathering slows down, and CO2 builds up in the atmosphere, keeping things warm. When it gets too warm, weathering speeds up, drawing down CO2 and keeping things cool. In the big picture, CO2 levels are pretty low now, so I think it’s fair to worry that if the earth had been 85 or 90 million miles from the sun, its ability to maintain a moderate climate might have been compromised long ago, as the sun brightened. But we probably could have gotten a bit further away without being stuck in a permanent ice house. Would be a fun experiment to run with a coupled climate model, in any case.

  2. I think this is overdone: “The Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. 92 million miles would make it too hot; 94 million miles would make it too cold. Very tiny changes would have precluded human life from existence. Yet here we are.”

    The sun’s brightness has increased by about 30% over the history of life on earth. On very long time scales (tens of millions of years), the climate system has some strong negative feedbacks that have allowed for life to hang on: when it gets too cold, weathering slows down, and CO2 builds up in the atmosphere, keeping things warm. When it gets too warm, weathering speeds up, drawing down CO2 and keeping things cool. In the big picture, CO2 levels are pretty low now, so I think it’s fair to worry that if the earth had been 85 or 90 million miles from the sun, its ability to maintain a moderate climate might have been compromised long ago, as the sun brightened. But we probably could have gotten a bit further away without being stuck in a permanent ice house. Would be a fun experiment to run with a coupled climate model, in any case.

  3. Dear Jonathan,
    I truly appreciate your insight and reference to Jewish traditions and wisdom. You talk about G_d in a respectful manner and the atheists do not belittle you. Perhaps you would also agree with the old Proverb that the fear of G_d is the beginning of wisdom. Thanks for being here.

  4. Dear Jonathan,
    I truly appreciate your insight and reference to Jewish traditions and wisdom. You talk about G_d in a respectful manner and the atheists do not belittle you. Perhaps you would also agree with the old Proverb that the fear of G_d is the beginning of wisdom. Thanks for being here.

Comments are closed.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

READ more

POSTS BY Jonathan