With this week’s Torah portion, we find ourselves situated between the violent, destructive waters of God’s flood, and next week’s commencement of our requests for life-giving, restorative rains. Within this context, Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx remind us that water is a blessing from God, and that if we desire to control it, we must do so from a place of justice, equality and respect for all the life which drinks of it.
By: Rabbi Dr Dalia Marx
Large and small signs of life and heralding of the seasons are encoded in the prayers of Israel. The prayers signal the changing of the seasons, the daily times, and the years, and enable those who pray to anchor themselves in a world that is felt at times to be perplexing. An example of change in nature that the prayers give expression to is the division of the Hebrew year between the rainy season and the dry season.
We have just celebrated the Feast of Sukkot when we are “judged through water”(Rosh Hashanah 1:2). During the Second Temple period, the rituals linked to pouring the water on the altar were the highlight of the holiday. The ceremonies were called “The Joy of Drawing the Water.” At the conclusion of the holiday, on Shmini Atzeret, we recite the Prayer for Rain. And thus, we have marked the beginning of the rainy season. From now until Passover we mention the rains in the blessing “gvurot” in our prayers, and turn to God “who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” Next week or to be more exact, the 7th of MarCheshvan, the hope for rain is reinforced in our prayers when we add an actual request for rain: “and give us dew and rain for a blessing.”
Many times I ask myself what did our grandfathers and grandmothers, who asked for rain in Europe – a land which is overflowing with lakes and rivers, and is rainy anyway – think? Could they feel the existential angst of the composers of our prayers for the inhabitants of the Land of Israel who were dependent on the rain for their livelihood and dreaded a drought? In the Land of Israel, however, there is no doubt that the prayers for rain were said out of a real apprehension, with a worrisome peak at the sky and the land. Rav Yehudah, one of the Talmudic scholars, expressed the importance of rain when he said: “A day of rain is as great as the day the Torah was given.” Rabbah exceeded him by saying:”More than the day the Torah was given,” while Rav Hunah said:
“The day of rain is greater than the day of the rising of the Dead, because the rising up of the dead is for the righteous, while the rainy day is for the righteous and the sinners” (Bavli Taanit 7:7).
In most cases, for us, rain is a blessing, but here, too, there are floods and deluges of the Ayalon Highway, when there is not much difference for the waterbeds of the Judean desert. Precisely, this week, the time between “mentioning” the rain and “asking for the rain” is timely (Parashat Noah), when the narrative of the flood and the description of waters so strong that they obliterated all signs of life on earth is read. Although God promised not to curse the land again with a flood, while the sages also saw a need to set a textual response to the dangerous waters in the Torah portion. This response is found in the language of the Haftarah with the glorious cry of the prophet: “All who are thirsty, come for water!” (Isaiah 55:1). The sages associated between water and Torah, explaining that the thirst is for words of Torah. But we can read it as the pshat, the literal meaning for what it is, may all who are thirsty come to the waters and quench their thirst. Not for nothing are these words spoken in the prophecy. We know that this is not such a simple thing: living waters were not available to everyone in the past, nor are they available to everyone in the present.
This Shabbat, we find ourselves between “the reminder” that the nature of the world in this season is to bring rain, and the “requesting of the rain” that bears witness to the fact that we should not take rain for granted and not always are the rains a blessing in their season, between the waters of the flood that punish, destroy and kill, and the waters that we ask to quench, “All who are thirsty.” This is an opportunity to reflect on the significance of water for us. We associate water with purity and cleanliness, but is this always the case? In her article in the book Parshat Hamayim, the environmental quality investigator, Mirale Goldstein writes:
“Immersing in the waters of the mikveh is a physical symbol of spiritual purification. The power of the symbol derives from the understanding that water is clean and has the capacity to wash away contaminants. But what if we are afraid of untreated water? We associate water in nature with a risk of disease. Most of what contaminates water cannot be seen. Some of the causes of pollution are ancient and familiar, such as sewage. But others, such as industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals, are frighteningly unfamiliar. Moreover, humans have created and disseminated these dangerous pollutants. This state of affairs raises ancient questions about the relationship between physical and spiritual purity to a new level. Can we be spiritually pure if our physical surroundings are impure? Can we partake of the holiness of mikveh if we have desecrated the waters that fill the mikveh?”
This and more. If water is linked in our religious consciousness to justice as it said, “But let justice well up like water, righteousness, like an unfailing stream”(Amos 5:25), then how can we explain the fact that more than a billion people in this world do not have access to proper drinking water, and how does it happen in our modern era, that millions die every year from both a lack of water as well as water-borne diseases? All this is occurring while in the wealthy countries people are wasting water every day on Jacuzzis, sumptuous baths and on empty luxuries. It should be said, nonetheless, that the Israeli public is significantly different from the other developed countries. We are aware of the need to save water, many are interested in the water level of the Sea of Galilee and the awareness of “pity on every drop” is not an empty slogan in our houses. But most of the big questions connected to water and its usage beg to be answered.
“Technology has given us the power to manipulate natural processes. With this power we adopted an attitude that we could and should manipulate them. As a result of this attitude we have damaged nature at every scale, from the local wetland to the global climate.”
And as we all know, that with a lot of power come a lot of responsibility.
Environmental groups have set this Shabbat, Parshat Noach, as a Shabbat for public awareness of environmental issues. It seems that the Israeli awareness of water, its availability, its quality and the struggle to produce and acquire it, is presented in the civil discourse more often than in other Western countries. But this awareness is not enough, neither from a strategic perspective nor from an ethical point of view – we must remind ourselves that water is God’s blessing; we cannot take it for granted, and if we desire to control it, we must do this out of the recognition of the distresses that are linked to water and the question of justice that flows from the need for it, especially in an arid zone like ours.
Waters teach us a lesson in modesty—such a simple substance, with no color or shape—grasps the key to life. Water suggests an important lesson to us in gratitude and in renewing our commitment towards God, Man and the Earth.
Rabbi Akiva says:
Fortunate are you O Israel!
Before whom do you purify yourselves?
And who purifies you?
Your Father in Heaven
As it is said, “I will sprinkle upon you pure water
And you will shall be purified.” (Ezekiel 36:25)
And it is said, “The hope (mikveh) of Israel is in the Eternal.”(Jeremiah 17:13)
Just as mikve purifies the defiled,
So, too. The Holy blessed is he purifies Israel.”
(Mishnah Yoma 8 :9)
Dr Rabbi Dalia Marx is an Associate Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at Hebrew Union College in
Jerusalem and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Her book, Feminist Commentary of Babylonian Talmud: Tractates, Tamid, Midot, Kinim was recently published.