Our Mishna on Amud Aleph tells us that the process of fasting for rain begins in stages, with less severe fasts and only “individuals” praying. If the drought continues to Rosh Chodesh Kislev, it is perceived as more of a crisis, and public fasts and prayers are instituted, still not of the severest kind. If the rain still does not come the process continues with an escalation of the abstentions and supplications.
What is most notable is that the prayer increases as the length of the famine increases. It is a bit odd, almost as if the process is saying, “OK God let’s see if this is enough to appease you.” And then if it is not, we say “OK, we will try a little harder and dig deeper.” It feels, in some way, insincere. On the one hand, this is only logical. Yet it does beg for more understanding as truly there should not be half-hearted repentance or prayer.
Arvei Nachal (Balak א) asks an age-old question: Why do we bother to pray? If God intends something, so it shall be. And how can we presume that He would, or even could, change His mind. Whatever God originally decrees represents an already perfect formulation of a perfect intellect. God is not ever subject to change of any kind, nor does he learn any new facts, as this would render Him into a Temporal physical being (See Rambam Yesode HaTorah 1:11-12 ). Arvei Nachal explains the role and process of prayer as operating on two levels, based on two different answers to this question.
On the one hand, we know there is a concept known as Hashem desires the prayers of Tzaddikim. This is exemplified by the Midrashic observation (Chulin 60b) that the vegetation only sprouted after Man was created despite the fact that vegetation was brought into existence on day three of creation. The Gemara says, from here we see that God waits for the prayers of Man to activate matters in this world. Arvei Nachal argues then that praying for certain things do not represent a change in God’s will, as God already had a necessary precondition and it was His Will that the activation depends on human prayer.
This idea that our prayers are necessary is essentially no different than other forms of hishtadlus (human effort) that seems to be a necessary pattern of our existence. God, in His wisdom, does not serve us anything on a silver platter. It seems whether it is physical, or metaphysical, we must always do something to make it happen.
Arvei Nachal offers a second answer for why prayers are necessary and not a change of God’s mind. If the prayer is accompanied by authentic repentance, then the changed outcome does not represent God changing His mind. Rather, the person or people have changed their circumstances so that the original decree doesn’t apply to them any longer.
Both of these answers represent two kinds of prayers for two kinds of situations. The routine matters of life require prayer to activate blessings because, as we saw, God desires Man to pray. There is no special withholding. However, at times, there is a heavenly decree, holding back a blessing. Then, special prayer and repentance is required in order to change the people and nullify the applicability of the decree.
Now we can understand the different phases of prayer for rain in the Mishna. At first the prayer is not about repentance, and therefore represents the routine prayer that brings blessings. However, if the lack of rain continues, the assumption is that there is a deeper problem, possibly a heavenly decree to withhold rain. At that point, the prayers must progress to increasing levels of soul-searching and repentance in order to change the circumstances by changing the people.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)