PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Hukkat while abroad Korach which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Korach here.
Rabbinic sources call water a blessing, the United Nations recognises it as a human right, and Isaac seeks to distribute it equally among peoples. In his commentary to Parashat Hukkat, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann shows us what Israel today must learn about the importance of fairly managing our most precious natural resource.
By Nicolas Poussin -Moses striking water from the rock. Public Domain
By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
Parashat Hukkat which opens with the strange commandment of the red heifer that is used to purify those contaminated by contact with death, goes on to tell the story of “Mei Meriva” (The waters of contention) where Moses strikes a rock twice angrily and provides the thirsty people with water. He is punished for his angry disobedience and is fated not to enter the land (Numbers, 20 1-6). But that is not the end of his troubles with the rebellious people. Their angry criticism of him and Aharon at having brought them “to die in the desert” and their wish “to return to Egypt” is repeated a number of times in the narrative. It is one of the main narrative themes of this book of the Torah. The long trek through the desert is wearing them down and they are losing patience.
The word ”water” figures prominently in the weekly Torah reading appearing some eleven times in the opening description of purification associated with the red heifer, and then nine more times in the subsequent narrative as the people continue to complain time after time of the lack of drinking water in the desert. Twenty times mentioned in one parasha seems to be telling us something.
This has been a hot summer here in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. There have been water shortages and water supply to villages in the “West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria” (according to your narrative) has been rationed yet again as it has been in past years. The water deprivation of the Palestinian population is a consequence of 49 years of structural discrimination. It is, one might say, a man-made desert. This alone would explain Palestinian non acceptance of, and rebellion against, Israeli rule, just as wandering in a waterless desert following Moshe and Aharon for forty years would explain the people’s rebelliousness and bitterness in this week’s Torah narrative. Moshe’s lack of sympathy for the people’s thirst led to his punishment just as our lack of sympathy for the basic human needs of Palestinians leads us to isolation in the world community, and increased rage from those millions whose lives we effect.
Here is an Israeli description of one case of such discrimination on which we too have reported in the past.
And for a more comprehensive description of this ongoing injustice see this link.
My personal experience in the field over the years has been one of witnessing discrimination and inequitable distribution of water resources, highlighted by repeated acts of destruction of water infrastructure in Area C, the prevention of local water development for Palestinian villages, and their increasing dependence on water purchased from Israeli sources.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that water and sanitation should be a human right. Water as a human right is as much about the quality, making sure that the water is clean and you do not get sick from drinking it, as it is about access.
In the earlier Torah story of “The Bitter Waters” (“Hamayim Hamerorim“) there was water but it was not drinkable. Moses solved that problem miraculously. In Gaza today there is an extreme water crisis and in many villages in Israel and the Palestinian territories which not connected to the Israeli water system there is water which is not drinkable, as it has been polluted due to inadequate sewage (sometimes from Israeli industry, particularly from Jewish settlements, but also from Palestinian industry).
Photo: Village of a-Duqaiqah, South Hebron Hills, not hooked up to water grid; By Nasser Nawaj’ah, B’Tselem
Unfortunately, Israel has actively prevented the improvement of this situation in Area C because of political and ideological concerns, often under the claim to be engaged in issues of security. We have the technological know-how and material resources to solve these problems at least in those areas under our direct and indirect control, if not in those where Hamas rules. We have a common interest to deal with this, if we can find a way to cooperate with the Palestinians and transcend exclusivist nationalist narratives for the sake of life. “You shall choose Life” the Torah tells us.
Rabbinic sources tell us repeatedly of the great value of water – rain is a blessing, drought a punishment. It is expressed ritually by religious Jews all over the world in their daily repetition of the Sh’ma prayer, instituted by the sages in ancient times, reminding them of their dependence on Divine Benevolence.
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).
We can learn from the behavior of our ancestor Isaac in Genesis who acted for peace in avoiding conflict over water. He was able to share water resources in the land with the Philistines.
Making running drinkable water available in an equitable way to all who live here between the river and the sea might look like the equivalent of the miracle described in this week’s Mei Merivah story but doing so is the right, moral thing to do, and I believe, in our long-term interest. We are, after all, a land of miracles!
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is a the director of organisational development at Rabbis for Human Rights.
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