Water, Water Everywhere and the Command to Protect it so There Will be a Drop to Drink
By Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein
I walked along the Merrimack on the trail behind my condo in Chelmsford. Everything was green, despite a dry, hot summer. The water level was higher than I expected. I’ve been thinking a lot about water this summer. Partly because of the oil spill in the Gulf and partly because I work at a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath and partly, well, because I am just drawn to water. It’s a good season for it—give me a walk along the river, a swim in Freeman Lake or a trip to an ocean beach and count me in! Water can calm, inspire, nurture and heal. It can help us feel close to the Divine as we discover its beauty, its vastness, its power and its majesty. It is both timeless and ever changing. Understanding this, the rabbis placed a prayer about the beauty of creation right after the call to worship. Frankly, however, especially in the summer I would rather be outdoors by the water then sitting in a synagogue praying about it.
Deuteronomy 11:13-21 says that “If then you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving God will all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late…Teach these commandments to your children…to the end that you and your children may endure in the land.”
The ancient Israelites were an agricultural people living in a desert. They understood the importance of rain and of clean drinking water. We’ve lost touch with some of it and take some of it for granted. This has been a problem for some time. According to UNICEF, 2.5 B people lack access to water sanitation and 884M people still use unsafe, untreated drinking water. Lack of access to safe water kills and sickens thousands everyday. At the same time the largest consumers of water are industrial complexes and agriculture. This summer we have seen the catastrophic results on people, fragile environments and wildlife.
As I was walking I was reminded of the song Colors of the Wind from Pocohantas:
You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name
Yes, we want access to oil. But, we also have an obligation to protect this creation, these living waters. The rabbis teach the principle of bal tashchit, “Do not destroy”, which we glean from Deuteronomy 20:19 which says “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees.” From this verse we deduce the whole obligation to treat the environment ethically. We are partners in God’s creation. Rabbi Marc Gillman tells a story that after God separated the dry land from the waters the angels asked if creation was finished. “Not yet,” God replied. Each day the angels asked if the work of creation is done. Each time, God replied, “Not yet.” Finally God made Adam and Eve and told them that they were worthy and capable of being God’s partners. God explained a partner is someone with whom you work on something you cannot do alone. Some days it seems like too much. But Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of the Ancestors 2:16, teaches that ours is not to complete the task, neither are we free to ignore it.
There is an oft-repeated story told of a girl walking on the beach at low tide. She is picking up starfish and throwing them back in. A man spies her and asks what she is doing. “You can’t make a difference. You can’t possibly save them all.” She picks up another one, throws it back in and says, “It makes a difference to this one.”
The Talmud (Taanit 23) has a similar story, about Honi the Water Maker. One day he was going along the road, when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, “In how many years will this tree bear fruit?” The man responded, “In seventy years.” Honi asked, “Are you sure that you will live seventy more years to enjoy the fruit of this tree?!” The man said, Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my descendants.”
As Deuteronomy taught, if we follow God’s commandments and teach our children it will go well for us on the land and God will provide rain and water. It is our obligation then, as we have seen to partner with God and ensure that there is enough clean water and enough trees for our children and our children’s children.
The task can seem overwhelming. The oil spills were not here but thousands of miles away. Our children today have clean drinking water here. Why should I bother? What can I do? What difference can I make? You do not need to do it alone. Start small. Pick up trash along the rivers and streams on your walks. Fix leaks in your houses and put in low volume toilets. Turn off the faucet washing dishes, brushing your teeth or shaving. Take shorter showers and replace your showerhead with an ultra-low flow model. Install aerators on your household faucets. Don’t dump hazardous waste, paints or other liquids down storm drains. Water your gardens only when appropriate and on the published schedules. Work to save our wetlands. Find a partner. Do it with your children. Together we can make a difference.
Hannah Senesh penned these words on the beach at Caesara in 1943
O Lord, my God
I pray that these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters
The crash of the heavens
The prayer of the heart.
May it be so.