A seder participant takes a transparent pitcher of clear water and pours it into another pitcher, in which the water turns deep red. As the water is poured, recite:
“The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt…. And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.”
(Exodus 7:21, 24)
As we celebrate Passover, we are aware of the repeated presence of water in our story. [Ask seder participants: How many examples can you name of water appearing in the Haggadah?] Water in the Torah is both a source of deliverance and a source of destruction. As an infant, Moses was placed by his mother in the waters of the Nile. Years later, he and Aaron stood before Pharaoh as the waters of the Nile turned to blood. (A midrash in Shemot Rabbah 9:10 teaches that Aaron, not Moses, struck the Nile with his rod, because long ago the Nile’s waters had protected Moses.)
We recall the plague upon Egypt that reddened the Nile, poisoning its waters, and we are reminded of the disaster that has unfolded in Flint, Michigan in recent months.
The story of Flint’s water crisis is both difficult and easy to understand. It’s difficult because of the complicated processes through which our drinking water arrives to us in our first-world homes, and the intricate procedures through which it is supposed to be treated and made safe. The process of corruption and greed that led to this crisis, however, is easy to understand, because it is so familiar—as old as the story of the corrupt Pharaoh of the Torah.
In April 2014, the city of Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron, the third-largest freshwater lake in the world, to the Flint River. The change was an effort to save money in the wake of years of major economic crisis.
Almost immediately, residents began lodging complaints about the taste, odor, and color of the water that was emerging from their pipes. By August 2014, the city issued boil-water advisories due to the detection of coliform bacteria in the city’s tap water.
In October 2014, the General Motors plant in Flint formally complained to the state government about the corrosive effect that the water was having on their cars. The plant stopped using Flint River water—but the same water that was corroding GM car parts was still being consumed by the children, and everyone else, in Flint.
By February 2015, Detroit’s water system was offering to reconnect to Flint, and even proposed waiving a $4 million connection fee. But the city’s state-appointed emergency manager declined the offer and state officials said the water was not an imminent threat to public health.
But in early 2015, Flint’s citizens were complaining publicly about the city’s “bad water,” and several community groups already had identified a public health crisis was at hand. High levels of lead were detected in homes around the city, but Flint’s mayor was warning against drawing premature conclusions. By the fall, a group of doctors were urging Flint’s residents to stop using the Flint River for water after noticing multiple cases of high levels of lead in the blood of children. Still state regulators insisted that the water was safe.
The next few months were marked by denial, down-playing the crisis, and passing-the-buck among city, county, and state officials. Finally, in January 2016, the state declared a state of emergency.
The effects of the toxic water in Flint are just beginning to be known. Lead poisoning can take years to impact a person’s health. In children, lead poisoning is a direct cause of a host of mental and physical disabilities, and in high concentrations can be fatal. In adults, it can be toxic to many bodily systems, and in pregnant women it dramatically increases the likelihood of miscarriages.
Public health experts and environmentalists warn that Flint is just the beginning of a host of water crises for many American cities. The outdated, lead-lined pipes that supplied water to Flint are frighteningly common. And the short-sighted officials of Michigan are, G-d knows, certainly not unique. The great environmental activist Erin Brockovich maintains that many communities in America are currently in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and she diagnoses the source of Flint’s poisoned water: corrupt politicians and unchecked greed.
In the days of the Exodus, the Nile was the source of life for everyone in Egypt. Its waters would regularly overflow its banks, nourishing Egypt’s fields and making them fertile. When its waters became toxic, all of Egypt suffered. But Pharaoh was surrounded by sycophantic officials who convinced him that his nation’s environmental crisis was just a ploy by Moses and Aaron (Exodus 7:22-23). Time and again, plagues came upon Egypt, yet Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his heart. Perhaps he convinced himself and, for a time, his citizens, that the slaves were crucial to the Egyptian economy and could not be released. Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened to what ultimately became obvious to everyone but himself.
As we recall the toxic waters of Egypt, we remember: This is what happens to a society that places the corporate bottom line above human lives and is deaf to the sounds of human suffering. Its living waters turn to blood.
May our hearts be softened as we tell this story, and may we know only the waters of deliverance and redemption!
u’sh’avtem mayim b’sason mi-ma’ay’nei ha-y’shu’a
Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of salvation! (Isaiah 12:3)