Water: Appreciating a Limited Resource

by Rabbi Yonatan Neril[1]

 

This resource was developed as part of the set of “core Jewish teachings on the environment” created for Jewcology.

 

Water and rain are deeply tied to the holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. In the time of the Temple, on Sukkot the High Priest in Jerusalem would perform an elaborate ritual involving the raising of water from the spring below the Temple. On Shemini Atzeret, at the beginning of Israel’s rainy season, we recite a special blessing for rain. We pray that the Divine bring beneficial rain, which falls at the right time to nourish our crops and fill our reservoirs.  Sukkot is thus an important time to appreciate and protect our water resources.

Human beings depend on a sufficient supply of high quality fresh water for their survival. Because of this essential dependence, the Midrash simply calls water “life.”[2]  By recognizing our dependence on water, and ultimately our dependence on G-d, we can strengthen our appreciation and protection of our precious natural resources, and our relationship with the Creator of the world.

Even before the Israelites entered the land of Israel, water was central to their collective experience. In the desert, uncertainty about water resources inspired numerous complaints and lessons for the wandering Jews.[3]  The Midrash teaches that in the merit of Miriam’s song, a well appeared in the desert which accompanied the Jews wherever they went.[4]  G-d gave us this essential resource, without which we could not live for more than a few days, in the water-scarce desert.  But the long-term security of the resource was never certain.

The Biblical experiences with water in the desert can be understood as a spiritual training to cultivate appreciation for G-d’s goodness. Through the process of taking water for granted, losing it and then receiving it directly from G-d, the desert wanderers learned to appreciate water and to know Who provides it.  Thus, at the end of the Jews’ desert experience, they sang an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water.[5]

Upon entering Israel, the experience of water scarcity continued for our ancestors, living in an agrarian society whose bounty or famine were regulated by rain.  Israel is a semi-arid country with no major rivers. It receives modest rainfall, averaging less than 100 millimeters per year in the extreme south to 1,128 millimeters in the north.[6]   (By comparison, New York City averages between 710 and 1140 millimeters of rain or snow per year.[7])  Until the 20th century, most agriculture in Israel was rain-fed and not irrigated; farmers depended on the winter rains in order to eat and live.  Our sources[8] teach that this water insecurity is by Divine design, to help us realize that G-d is the ultimate Provider not only of water, but all our needs.[9]

Consequently, our texts are replete with appreciation for rain, profound recognition of the importance of water, prayers imploring G-d to provide us with water, and gratitude for the rains when they come.   For example, Dr. Jeremy Benstein notes that Biblical Hebrew contains at least six different words to describe liquid precipitation (geshem, matar, yoreh, malkosh, revivim, se’irim), which denote different times and intensities of rainfall.[10]

Furthermore, the Talmud records: “Rav Judah  said in the name of Rav: ‘We give thanks to You, Hashem, our G-d for every single drop which you have caused to fall upon us.’”[11]   And the Talmud teaches, “The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created.”[12]

Today, the industrialization of water distribution has increased the availability of water yet reduced our appreciation of its importance.  We generally do not see where food is grown or the rain or irrigation that waters the crops.  In Israel, for example, the National Water Carrier distributing water from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and electric pumping of the underground aquifers has enabled irrigation of most Jewish farmland, increasing crop yields.  Piped water now comes directly to us, replacing reliance on local water sources.

These innovations have relieved us from schlepping our water from streams and cisterns to our homes. While this represents a tremendous improvement in quality of life, it also blinds us to where water comes from – both physically and spiritually. With this, we have lost the deep-seated experience of the preciousness of water.  For many, this is partly a spiritual loss: lacking the sense of our ultimate dependence on G-d for all our needs.  But it also has very significant practical impacts, because where appreciation ends, misuse begins.

The world increasingly faces a water crisis, experienced most by those in Africa, South Asia, and China. A lack of sufficient drinking water is recognized to be a leading cause of death in the world.  Some 884 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking-water sources.[13]  The United Nations Environment Program notes that two-thirds of the world’s population are likely to face water stress by 2025, a result of “climate change, uncontrolled urbanization, unplanned water withdrawal and inappropriate water policies.”[14]

In the United States, many counties in the West and Southeast experience increasing water scarcity, with government agencies forced to regulate consumption or call for conservation.[15]   Overpumping of groundwater in Texas, India, and elsewhere threatens the agricultural future of many farmers.[16]

In the Land of Israel, Israel’s the main aquifers and Lake Kinneret have dipped below their red lines in recent years, endangering water quality.[17]   The Israeli Ministry of the Environment has warned that “Preservation of the country’s scant water sources may be the greatest challenge facing Israel today.”[18]

Piped water and irrigated fields give us the misimpression that the availability of fresh water is virtually limitless. Yet freshwater is scarce on planet earth.[19]    And these technologies obscure how water is becoming even more limited due to a plethora of factors, among them increasing demand, climate change, and pollution of freshwater supplies. Can human society simultaneously enjoy pumped and piped water and use it wisely?  For modern use of water to continue in the long-term, we will have to develop a deeper water awareness.

The Torah refers to G-d as the ‘Source of Living Waters.[20]   Water continues to be one of the chief means by which G-d provides life to us every day.   Our daily prayers, full of references to the need for rain, remind us of the lessons our forefathers learned about water. We can use the Torah’s teachings on rain and water to help us cultivate an appreciation for water and everything we use, and a deeper connection to G-d. Kabbalistically, water symbolizes consciousness,[21]    and is thus an appropriate means through which we cultivate our awareness of G-d.

Praying for rain helps develop our relationship with our Creator by reminding us that G-d provides us water – along with everything else we need – each day.  It also generates within us an appreciation for water itself – one that can inspire us to value and protect what we have.

How can we become aware of the true Source of our water and become more conscious of how we use it? Here are five things you can do:

  1. Get to know your water. Connect to the physical source of the water you drink. Go to that source and sit by it, like Jacob and Moses did. Listen to the water. Think about how most of your body is comprised of it. Try this once a month and see what happens.
  2. Save water: simple action steps.  Soap your dishes with the water shut off before rinsing them. Turn off the water when you brush your teeth. Contemplate your monthly water bill, remembering that each drop is given to you as a gift. If you use close to 230 gallons a day, like the average person in the United States does, think about key areas where you could reduce the amount you use. For more steps you can take, go to Canfei Nesharim’s Ways to Save Water for Sukkot.
  3. See water as purifying. Another gateway to water awareness is the Jewish ritual of netilat yadai’im, the washing of hands. . We can connect to the purifying potential of water by using a vessel to pour water over our hands upon arising in the morning and before eating bread.   If you already do this, see if you can infuse it with a new meaning by concentrating on the gift of water as you perform the ritual.
  4. Appreciate Hashem’s gift of water: blessings. Before and after you drink water or any liquid, say the blessing on it. In so doing, you will connect this physical liquid to its spiritual source, which is the Creator of the Universe.  The blessing begins with the word ‘baruch,’ which is related to ‘bereicha,’ pool, since God is like an infinite pool.  The blessing over drinking water is: Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam shehakol nihiyah bed’varo.  Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, by Whose word all things came to be.[22]
  5. Make a bigger difference. Take a few concrete steps toward water conservation. For example, make a commitment to stop using bottled water; instead, use filtered tap water.  Fix any water leaks in your house.  Install low-flow faucet heads and toilets. Hook up a graywater system to water your lawn with sink water.  A good list of ideas can be found at the EPA Water Sense website

 

Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He holds an MA and BA from Stanford University and engaged in Jewish learning for seven years at multiple institutions of Jewish studies in Israel. He lives with his wife and son in Jerusalem.   
 

Note:

[1] Evonne Marzouk contributed significantly to the development of this piece.

[2] Avot of Rabbi Natan 34:10. This introduction is based on Dr. Akiva Wolff’s “Water: A Sukkos Drash”

[3] See, for example, Numbers 20:3

[4] Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 2 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 9a,. When Miriam dies, the well goes away (see Numbers 20:1-2)

[5] Numbers 21:17

[6] “Climate: Israel”. U.S. Library of Congress, online at http://countrystudies.us/israel/36.htm

[7] Normals & Extremes, Central Park, New York, 1869 to Present, National Weather Service Forecast Office, 01 April 2006.

[8] For example, Rabbi Alex Israel teaches regarding rain in the Land of Israel: “The dependency of the mountain-land makes it a difficult place to live. Throughout the book of Genesis we read of periodic famine in Canaan. Israel is destined to live a life of dependency on God. This is Israel’s legacy, its historic challenge. The land of Israel is naturally insecure and that is precisely the reason that it was destined for Israel.” Commentary to Parshat Eikev, 5766, originally posted on website of Midreshet Lindenbaum, Jerusaslem.

[9] The Talmud teaches that G-d personally waters the land of Israel and the rest of the world is watered by a messenger, as Job 5:10 says. Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 10a. Thus when rain is withheld in Israel, it is because of Divine intervention in response to Israel’s actions, as the second paragraph of Shema makes clear.

[10] “Forgotten Language of Rain,” Jerusalem Report, Fall 2005

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, p. 6b

[12] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 8b, Artscroll translation.

[13] The 2010 Report of the World Health Organization/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation

[14] “Note of the Executive Director,” 2003, available online at www.unep.org/GC/GC22/Document/K0263442.doc

[15] Andrew Gumbel, “The wrath of 2007: America’s great drought” The Independent (UK) June 11, 2007.

[16] Ogallala Aquifer: Water Hotspots, BBC News 2003, online athttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/world/03/world_forum/water/html/ogallala_aquifer.stm

[17] Summer 2008, from Israeli Ministry of the Environment, www.environment.gov.il  and Adam Teva v’Din,www.adamteva.org.il

[18] Israeli Ministry of the Environment, “The Environment in Israel,” 2002, p. 73

[19] See Statement on Water Quality from Canfei Nesharim’s Science and Technology Advisory Board: “Although water is seemingly abundant, the amount of fresh water is not.  97.5% of all water on Earth is salt water, leaving only 2.5% as fresh water. Nearly 70% of that fresh water is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland; most of the remainder is present as soil moisture, or lies in deep underground aquifers as groundwater not accessible to human use.  Less than 1% of the world’s fresh water (~0.007% of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human uses. This is the water found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and those underground sources that are shallow enough to be tapped at an affordable cost. Only this amount is regularly renewed by rain and snowfall and is therefore available on a sustainable basis.  Water, however, is not equally distributed. Of the very small amount of water that is usable by humans, approximately 20% is in the Great Lakes of North America (equal to 84% of all surface freshwater in the US, with another 20% in the Russian Lake Baikal.”

[20] Jeremiah 2:12, 17:13

[21] See, for example, Sefer Yetzira.

[22] Transliteration and translation from chabad.org

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