Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Rain in Israel
To dedicate this lesson

The Three Keys

"R' Yochanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead"


Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim zt"l

Wednesday, 28 Tishrei 5768
1. In His Hands
2. The Key of Childbirth
3. The Key of Rain

4. What Makes the Key Superior?

In His Hands
"R' Yochanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead" (Taanit 2a).

The three keys mentioned here by the sages are all tied to the source of existence. Through them God "touches" our world at three central stations in life - inception, being, and resurrection.

The Key of Childbirth
The first "touch" is the Key of Childbirth. The emergence of life is one of nature's wonders. The course of development from the inchoate stirrings of the embryo until the moment of birth is a thrilling and amazing journey. The fetus grows from a negligible drop, multiplying in size a millionfold before it finally emerges from the womb at just the right moment. All this demonstrates the great wisdom of our Creator.

God asks Job (39:1): "Do you know the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or can you mark when the hinds calve?" Our sages describe most dramatically the birth of the doe and the mountain goat, the difficult and complex conditions in which this takes place: "If it were [born] one second too soon or too late it would be killed" (Baba Batra 16b).

The same is true of the opening of the uterus and the emergence of the embryo at just the right moment. Birth is a kind of deliverance for the baby. This is hinted at by Isaiah the Prophet when he says "She was delivered of a son" (Isaiah 66:7; and see Baba Kama 80a, Tosefot ad loc., s.v. "Libi," the opinion of Rabbenu Tam).

A woman who has the privilege of giving birth radiates with the joy of creation inside her. She becomes a partner with God in creation. By contrast, the hardship of a childless woman who anxiously anticipates becoming pregnant is marked with veiled jealousy. She feels superfluous, as it were, in God's world, as if she has been provided with mothering organs in vain.

In her bitterness Rachel says to Jacob, "Give me children! If not I shall die!" (Genesis 30:1). The Midrash teaches that the key of barren women is one of the three keys God holds in His hands over which no creature, not even angel or Seraph, has any control (Devarim Rabbah 7:6). Birth is a gift of new life, not only for the newborn but for the mother as well.

The Key of Rain
The second "touch" is that of rainfall, the preservation of life. The purpose of rain is to bring life to creation, to guarantee its continued existence, to provide it with life via water. Water nourishes the plants upon which animals feed. This is the key of rain. "The Lord shall open to you his good treasure, the heaven, to give the rain to your land in its season" (Deuteronomy 28:12). In the language of Isaiah the Prophet, "For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and returns not there, but waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater" (Isaiah 55:10).

Here, too, as in childbirth, there is a move from the veiled to the revealed, a realization of potential. In the Amidah prayer's "Atah Gibor" ("You are mighty") blessing, the sages juxtapose mention of "Gevurot Geshamim" (God's capacity to bring rain) with that of "Techiyat HaMetim" (God's capacity to resurrect the dead), for these two qualities are declarations of praise for God; they tell of the Creator's greatness as finds expression in His mighty actions, and they teach us that despite the vast multiplicity of God's doings, they are all connected to one another.

The growth process is a rebirth for seeds that have decayed in the earth. It is a tiding of life for the trees that were lifeless and locked in winter's coma. These seeds, when they sprout forth from the earth after the rains, are like a joyful cry of life, a "tiding of resurrection" for our world. And this brings us to the third key, the key of resurrection.

The Key of the Revival of the Dead
The third "touch" is that of resurrection, life's continuation and aspiration. Though, outwardly, death appears to man as a kind of end of the road, Judaism teaches us that burial is not meant to remove a person from the world of the living; it is like planting him in preparation for a future rebirth - "And may the men of the city flourish like grass of the earth" (Psalms 72:16, and see Sanhedrin 90b). God keeps the dew of regeneration in his lofty treasure chest, "Dew that in the future shall revive the dead" (Shabbat 88b). In preparation for the new era that will announce the beginning of a new life cycle, Ezekiel the Prophet tells us, "And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves" (Ezekiel 37:13).

By referring to these touches as "keys" in the hands of the Creator, the sages wish to underscore our attachment to the Creator, our direct contact and dependence upon Him. From here we can learn about God's providence over the world, His preserving it and sustaining it, both via fixed laws of nature like the rising and setting of the sun, so that we may know what to expect and how to plan accordingly, and also via "keys" that are not bound by the ordinary framework of things.

Neither rainfall nor childbirth can be determined in any definitive manner. We cannot say what the weather will be like in a certain month on a particular day. Even in our own modern era, with all of the elaborate and precise instruments at our disposal, with our satellites and forecasting stations, we are yet unable to determine what the weather will be like more than four or five days in advance. This is because it is impossible to foresee events that are not firmly embedded in nature.

Yet, at times, even after despair has set in, rain begins to fall in great abundance, beyond all expectations or estimations. With birth, too, it is impossible to be absolutely certain about anything; sometimes barren women become pregnant against all odds and after all hope has been given up. This teaches us that beneath the visible forces at work in nature there are hidden forces that operate according to the divine touch of "the key." It is impossible to know or apprehend these forces accept through prophetic inspiration.

The Jerusalem Talmud adds a fourth key, the Key of Livelihood, as it is written, "You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with favor" (Psalms 145:16). According to R' Yochanan there is nothing unique about this key; its function relates to the preservation of existence and it is thus subsumed under the Key of Rain, for rain's purpose is to sustain creation. The sages greatly emphasized the importance of livelihood, saying, "Livelihood is more difficult that the redemption, for the redemption is brought about through an intermediary while livelihood comes through the Almighty Himself (Midrash Shocher Tov, Tehilim 136).

Livelihood is so important a matter that "the Almighty sits in heaven and apportions food to every living creature" (Pesachim 118a). The general, overall maintenance of creation depends upon God Himself; partial aspects, on the other hand, can be handed over to intermediaries. Whatever relates to life itself, to its preservation, is livelihood. Just as life itself is bound up with and attached to the all-embracing source of life, so life's maintenance and support is connected to the more general key of life. This function is not divorced from the source of life, and therefore it is not given over to an intermediary, "a messenger."

To hand something over to a messenger, then, means handing over the scepter of authority to the fixed forces of nature, granting them the authority to act independently, yet obviously in keeping with God's predetermined plan.

Nature works in an ordered, causal manner, by means of complex systems; the "opening" on the other hand, is God's own personal touch, insubordinate to the fixed courses of nature. The three keys that remained in God's hand after the establishment of the laws of nature still leave plenty of room for the influence of human prayer. This is the secret power of the "service of the heart," and this explains the bond between prayer and rain.

What Makes the Key Superior?
In the twenty-sixth chapter of "Messilat Yesharim," Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato) informs us that after climbing all the other rungs on the ladder of character perfection, one arrives at the attribute of holiness (Kedusha). What is the significance of this trait?

"In fine, Holiness consists in one's clinging so closely to his God that in any deed he might perform he does not depart or move from the Blessed One, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them, than he descends from his communion and from his high plane because of his having occupied himself with them."

Through this description the Ramchal seeks to provide us with a picture of holiness' lofty virtue: its ability to elevate. A holy person is capable of elevating the material world; material matters do not pull him down and drag him about. Above holiness, explains the Ramchal, lies the level of prophetic inspiration, wherein a person's mind rises to a state beyond normal human capacity.

"It is possible for one to reach such a high degree of communion with God as to be given the key to the revival of the dead, as it was given to Elijah and Elisha. It is this gift which reveals the strength of one's union with the Blessed One, for since He is the source of life, the giver of life to all living creatures, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Ta'anith 2a), 'Three keys were not entrusted to intermediaries: the key of the revival of the dead . . .' - since this is so, then one who is perfectly united with the Blessed One will be able to draw even life from Him."

The secret power of the key holder, then, is that he is ennobled by the Almighty with something like divine power.

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