Appreciating Water in the Desert



by Al Tanenbaum

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, is uncommonly rich with themes of life, death, leadership, and faith. Most often it is thought of for its nearly impenetrable and detailed commandment for using the ashes of an unblemished cow for cleansing those who have come in contact with the dead. Alternatively, scholars and students debate the harsh punishment that God handed down to Moses for his failure to speak to a rock, instead striking it twice. Chukat also furthers the narrative of the passing of a generation as we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the fate of Moses.

However, I see Chukat as delivering a nearly perfect commentary on the primary importance of water in our lives. Though it’s 87 short verses, water is mentioned no fewer than 32 times. The portion begins with God’s command to mix water with the ashes of a red cow for purification. Next, Miriam dies, and the well which provided the Israelites and their herds with water disappears. The Israelites complain that there is no water to drink and bemoan their deliverance from Egypt. After pleading with God on behalf of the people, Moses strikes the rock and God brings forth water. Next, Moses asks the Edomites to pass through their land, with a promise not to drink their water. Then Israel travels by way of the Sea of Reeds (where God had split the waters for them) and on their desert journey complain yet again about lacking water. They arrive in modern-day Jordan and sing an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water. Finally, the Torah portion ends with Israel encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

What are we to learn from this extended water narrative? On one hand, the Jews’ experiences with water in the desert can be understood as a lesson in appreciation for God’s greatness. God takes the essential tangible resource of water (without which we cannot live) and gives it to us in an environment where we do not have it. We learn to appreciate water and to know that it is God who really provides it through the process described here of taking water for granted, losing it, and then regaining. In essence, water does not nourish us. God does.

Yet, always being on the positive side of having water leads people to take it for granted. Today, water is abundant, cheap, and convenient nearly everywhere in the developed world. Modern plumbing relieves us from shlepping our water from streams and cisterns to our homes. Today, people in the West tend to lack an appreciation of where water comes from, and we end up wasting and polluting it. Where appreciation ends, misuse begins.

The current story in Israel is different. In a land where water has never seemed plentiful, it is a modern miracle that the desert has indeed bloomed. While Israeli technology has had an enormous impact on dozens, if not hundreds, of fields, perhaps the impact Israeli innovations have had on saving water is the most important. Israel’s water technology prowess developed, of course, due to the ongoing shortage of water in the country, and the need to squeeze the maximum out of every drop. As a result, Israel has developed dozens of technologies that ensure maximum use of water.

The list of Israeli companies that have contributed to the country’s water expertise is very long, as are the areas they specialize in. Israel more or less invented drip irrigation, a more effective way to water plants and crops while saving water, and has continued innovating ever since. Israel is the world’s technological leader in areas such as desalination, water recycling, dripless valves, waste reclamation, and water filtration.

Kibbutz Lotan is a Reform Kibbutz in the Negev situated on perhaps the very route along which the Israelites wandered in the stories related in Chukat. The Kibbutz is the living embodiment of the ecological lessons of Torah. Its members succeed in balancing the natural environment with the needs of a modern, growing community. Through innovative recycling, permaculture, and other projects, they are fulfilling the ancient need for securing water resources in the desert.

The Israelites of the Torah learned hard lessons about the importance of water to sustain life. God sustained them through giving water and Israel learned to revere God’s holy acts. The modern Zionist state follows this great tradition by sharing its hard lessons of water conservation and resource development. Countries from around the globe have turned to Israel to learn how to better manage their water resources. Times may have changed, but the importance of water in the narrative of our lives remains unaltered.

Al Tanenbaum is a long time trustee and active member of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD. He currently serves as ARZA’s Vice-Chair of Membership.

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