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.

Al Tanenbaum_001What 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, Maryland. He currently serves as ARZA’s Vice-Chair of Membership.

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4 Responses to “Appreciating Water in the Desert”

  1. avatar

    I had hoped to read some mention in the essay of Israeli efforts to share their wonderful hydrologic advances with Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
    B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories reported on January 1, 2013 that
    “Daily per capita water consumption in the West Bank for domestic, urban, and industrial use is some 73 liters. In areas in the northern West Bank, consumption is much lower. In 2008, per capita daily consumption was 44 liters in the Jenin area and 37 liters in the Tubas area.

    There is a huge disparity between Israeli and Palestinian consumption. Per capita water consumption in Israeli towns is 242 liters and in local councils, 211 liters. In other words, per capita use in Israel is three and a half times higher than in the West Bank.

    The World Health Organization and the United States Agency for International Development recommend 100 liters of water per capita per day as the minimum quantity for basic consumption. This amount includes, in addition to domestic use, consumption in hospitals, schools, businesses, and other public institutions. Palestinian daily consumption is one-third less than the recommended quantity.”

  2. avatar

    Great article Al, I love the way you connected the parsha to water issues in Israel today. Israel has certainly been leading the way in water conservation technologies. not only has Israel mastered drip irrigation, but many fish farms have been built in the Negev, using brackish water from underground reservoirs, perfect for warm water fish such as Tilapia and ornamental fish. I was also amazed to learn that fresh cut flowers are one of Israel’s leading agricultural export, made for Israel’s warm climate and sent mainly to Europe in their colder seasons. Finally a company called Solaris synergy has designed floating solar energy grids, which work as a water reservoir cover help reducing evaporation, protecting the limited water resource and providing energy. Kol Hakavod to Israel’s water innovations and for your article highlighting them.

  3. avatar

    Israel has certainly made wonderful technological advances that impact positvely on the life of the Jewish population. However, despite all of the wonders describribed in relation to chukat – one of the two aquifers that provide water for the entire country is almost dry; Lake Kinneert and Dead Sea are receding. Many Palestinian villages are dependent on water delivered by truck to provide them with bearly adequate hydration. Ed Horowitz has cited the WHO and USAID stsistics that point out the inequitable of the curent distribution of water among all the inahbitants of the land.
    I want Israel to survive and flourish and to reflect the humane values that our rabbis of old and the founders of Reform Jusaism espouse:
    ‘Fundamental to the Jewish insistence on social justice is the belief that human beings are all descended from adam kadmon, the first human being, and as such we are all equal. Thus we read, “Only one human being was created in the beginning so that no person may be able to say to another, ‘my ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’” (Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:5)
    Quote from Reform movement’s current statement on social Justice:


  1. Chukkat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1) | Torah Portion Humor Weekly - June 13, 2013

    […] or ashes, but water.  In an essay, “Appreciating Water in the Desert,” (thanks, Stanley!) at , Al Tanenbaum points out that there are 32 mentions of water in this 87-verse portion.  Water […]

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