Water and Wisdom: Remarks to the Ecumenical Conference of Greater Altoona, July 19, 2016

Presented as part of the “Matter of Faith” Interfaith Summer Series on “Caring For Our Common Home”:

Most people here are familiar with the story of Creation in Genesis, chapter 1: how God created an ordered material world out of the tohu va-vohu – the empty nothing that once existed. The earth is divided into oceans and continents, animals evolve from sea creatures to walk on dry land, the earth brings forth the lushness of the plant kingdom, and, eventually, humans are created from the dust of the earth itself, animated with the breath of God, and given the responsibility of tending the garden.

But according to Jewish tradition, three creations actually preceded the making of the world as we know it: water, wind and fire. That is to say, the earth could not be what it is without these three things existing first. In this mystical telling of the Creation story, water conceived and gave birth to thick darkness, fire conceived and gave birth to light, and wind (understood as God’s spirit) gave birth to wisdom. The world, then, is maintained by means of these six creations: water and darkness, fire and light, wind and wisdom.

We don’t often think of it this way. But I believe it is crucial that wisdom – born of the very breath of God – is included in this list of basic elements. Wisdom imbues words and actions with intention and thoughtfulness. That’s why we honor wisdom, as an element of creation, in our morning prayers every day:

מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ יְיָ, כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִֽׂיתָ

“How great are Your works, O God, in Wisdom have You made them all.”

But Wisdom is not reserved for God alone. If God’s spirit brought Wisdom into being, and if Wisdom is a basic element of the earth, then Wisdom was made to share with humanity. And to be used by humanity, to speak and to act with intention and thoughtfulness, just as God does. We are God’s messengers on earth. We must use wisdom in the way we treat the other elements of the world – earth and air, fire and water, light and darkness.

Jewish tradition and Jewish law – based in Torah, our sacred Scripture – are very clear about our responsibilities. Not to dominate the earth, but to take care of it.

And I want to focus on just one of these elements tonight, and how we ought to be treating it with wisdom. Water, in particular, is a powerful symbol in Judaism.

Water is a symbol of purity. Archaeological excavations at the southern entrance to the Temple mount have uncovered the mikva-ot – the ritual baths – in which our ancestors immersed themselves before they could ascend the steps to the Temple courtyard. Even today, Jews plunge into the waters of the mikvah to ritually cleanse themselves before the Sabbath or before being married.

Water is a symbol of hospitality. When Abraham’s servant went to look for a suitable bride for Isaac, he found Rebekah at a well, and chose her because she not only gave him water, but drew water for his camels as well. Isaac dug wells where his father had traveled, and where God called to him and blessed him.

Water is a symbol of transcendental change. It’s no coincidence that Jacob became Israel in the midst of a flowing stream, struggling for survival against an angelic creature. It’s no coincidence that the turning of the Nile from water to blood was the first miracle that Moses performed in Egypt. And that God’s parting of the sea – controlling the power of water over us – is the miracle that allowed the Israelites to escape the Egyptian army.

Miriam the prophetess is connected with the miracle of finding water in the desert. It was immediately after her death that the wells dried up, and so did the vines and fruit trees around them. Late in his life, Moses’s anger led him to strike at a rock to draw the water out, rather than coaxing it out as God had commanded. His punishment was that he would not be allowed to cross the Jordan River with the people, into the Promised Land.

The symbol of water points not just to our past but to our future: The prophet Ezekiel imagines the restoration of Israel as a time when God will sprinkle us with water to cleanse us from our sins, putting a new heart and new spirit within each of us.

But water is a potent symbol because it is far more than just a symbol. Let’s talk for a moment about water today. A number of our speakers last week talked about how we use it, how we waste it, and how we hoard it. Considering that 71 percent of the earth’s surface is made of water, you’d think we’d have enough. But it never seems to work out that way.

We Jews know what that’s like – and not just because of the Bible stories. Most of the land of Israel – and the modern state of Israel – is semi-arid, and rainfall is modest, at best. The Jordan River begins in Northern Israel, where there are some lush rain forests with magnificent waterfalls. But looks can be deceiving:. Israel been in a drought for most of the last decade. And Lake Kinneret, the source of much of Israel’s water supply, is well below what it should be.

But we Jews are resilient and resourceful. So we’ve come up with a lot of modern-day methods of well-digging. It was an Israeli, Simcha Blass, who first developed modern drip-irrigation techniques decades ago to, as we say, “make the desert bloom.” Instead of pop-up sprinklers or big irrigation rigs that waste water, either spraying it where it’s not needed or leaving it to be evaporated, drip-irrigation runs perforated hoses around the base of plants and trees dropping just enough water exactly where it’s needed – with water savings of 20 to 50 percent. Israel has been exporting this technology: one company, Netafim, operates in 150 countries around the world. But you can also get drip irrigation kits at Lowes and Home Depot for your own garden.

Israel also embraced desalinization – taking salt out of sea-water in the 1990s after yet another extended drought.  The coastal city of Eilat was a pioneer in the 1970’s, and now all of its municipal water supply comes from desalinization. And an Israeli company is now building a desalinzation plant in San Diego, as one way of dealing with the shrinking availability of clean water in an area of the country that seems to have an insatiable thirst for it.

The mechanics of all of this are one thing. But changing peoples’ minds about water – that’s something else. All of our speakers last week talked, in some way, about the environmental footprint each of us has. Shamsa [Anwar, speaking from the Muslim tradition] pointed out that when we use more than our fair share, we are leaving others with less than they need – sometimes with devastating results. I’m a child of the suburbs, where I’ve always taken clean water for granted, for drinking, bathing, and even brushing my teeth. It never occurred to me till pretty recently how much water it costs the earth to make one cotton t-shirt or one hamburger patty. So when I do environmental studies with my students, and we look at our water or carbon footprints, I do them along with everybody else to see where I’m being wasteful.

The book of Proverbs begins with the admonition: “L’Da’at chochma u-musar” – to understand wisdom and ethics. But the Rabbis also have translated it this way: “To understand wisdom and self-restraint.” Why pair wisdom with self-restraint? If a man has wisdom, say the rabbis, he will learn self-restraint. But if he has no wisdom, he is incapable of learning self-restraint.

I’d put it this way: Wisdom is a gift from God, embedded in the very creation of the world, which we can choose to use or to waste. If we choose to waste it, we also waste a lot of what the world offers us, thinking it’s just there for the taking – whatever we want, as much as we want, as long as we want it. When we choose to use it, we understand how very small we are, our very short are our years, and how very restrained must be our needs.

And we take to heart what the rabbis teach about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden: “Take care of the world I have given you, says God. Because if you do not, there will be no one to do it after you.”

Thank you.

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin




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