Giving Us Our Dew

We’re smack in the middle of the Passover holiday over here, and this year I was privileged and gratified to lead the musaf (“additional”) service in synagogue on the first day of the holiday. Privileged because it’s always a privilege to be asked to lead; gratified because it meant I got to lead one of my favorite prayers in the liturgy, said only once a year at the start of musaf on the first day of Passover: the prayer for dew.

I’m at the office now, and can’t seem to find the text of the prayer online; when I’m home, I’ll look it up and add a translation thereof to this post. In the meantime, brief thoughts.

The prayer for dew is pendant to a similar prayer for rain, recited in the autumn, at the end of the festival of Sukkot (“Tabernacles”). The prayer for rain marks the beginning of the rainy season; the prayer for dew the beginning of the dry season (and the first of the three agricultural festivals of the Jewish calendar).

Why a desert people might pray for rain is a relatively straightforward question to answer. The rains, after all, are never certain – and yet were absolutely vital to survival. If they did not come in their season, famine threatened. The autumn harvest festival is an explicitly joyous time, but there is an anxious undertone – all that waving of holy vegetation and shouted hosannas (literally) are clearly intended to get somebody’s attention.

But dew “falls” every day, even in the desert. It falls when we are faithful and when we are unfaithful; when we are wise and when we are foolish; when we are prideful in our success and when we are downcast in our overthrow. It is a constant, a tiny meliorative touch of moisture that you can always count on, even when the desert is at its harshest.

Once settled in the land, it was the closest these desert-dwellers came to the manna that had sustained them for forty years, the last vestige of that comprehensive divine care that had enveloped them in the long trek through the Sinai, like the letters from your grandmother that you might peruse for solace in adulthood long after she has passed on.

A “prayer” for dew is, in some sense, superfluous. It will be there whether we pray or not. Of course, so will the rain – or, rather, it will or it won’t. But when we pray for rain, we pray feeling as if these prayers might tip the scales in our favor, and while this lends them an urgency in calling down the divine, it also pushes it away. You cannot stand face to face with the Lord if you are engaged in supplication. For dew, we pray superfluously, the prayer itself a kind of free gift – the sort of gift the Lord of all, it seems to me, would be most apt to appreciate.