My 7-year old son said to me today, “When it rains, it makes the streets slippery and hard to walk.” I said to him, “But we need the rain in order to drink.” He replied, “But the water comes out of the faucet.”
An added benefit to the much-needed rain that Israel received yesterday and today was in washing away the Beijing-level air pollution and dust that has plagued this land for the past week. Unbeknownst to most people, the tiny particles “enter the lungs and cause local and systemic inflammation in the respiratory system and heart, thus cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis,” as Breezometer notes for the ‘poor air quality’ rating Jerusalem received for the past week. That’s because of both dust and human emissions from cars, power plants, and factories.
According to Israel’s top climate scientist, Professor Pinhas Alpert of Tel Aviv University, the number of high dust days in Israel has doubled in the past 50 years, due to human-caused climate change. And the number of dust days has increased with an average rate of 2.7 days per decade. Israel lies between large deserts: the Sahara, the Arabian desert, the Sinai and Negev, and the deserts of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Climate change is making the region dryer and expanding deserts, with longer periods of no rain punctuated by intense rainfall events. These climate disruptions are also increasing the amount of high dust days, as the wind brings desert dust to populated areas.
The Bible warned about misguided human action impacting the rain and the dust. In Deuteronomy 28:23-4, it is written, “The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. God will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.” The rabbinic commentator Hizkuni wrote, “The strong winds, which normally bring rain from the sky, will instead be sandstorms.” This curse only comes about as a result of people failing to live in spiritual and physical balance.
As The Associated Press recently reported, Israel is experiencing its fifth consecutive dry year: “The Sea of Galilee stands at a century low, much of the Jordan River is a fetid trickle and the Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking.” AP quoted Doron Markel, the Israel Water Authority’s Sea of Galilee director, who said that “the amount of water that’s flowed into the Sea of Galilee in the past four years is the lowest ever.” This drop is due to the reduced rainfall during the winter months.
Water scientists warn that should the Sea of Galilee continue to decline below the “black line,” it could become a salt sea like the Dead Sea, as salt springs underground release saline water into the sea. It’s not that we are on a collision course with the earth. We are currently colliding with the earth’s systems, and the effects are playing out in front of us for those who seek to open their eyes to them.
Some say that Israel and other Middle Eastern countries need not worry about the lack of rain, since desalination plants now provide much of Israel’s drinking water, and a new such plant is being built by Jordan. After all, the ocean water is vast, fossil fuel reserves are huge, and the technology exists to burn fossil fuels to produce potable water. As Dr. Jeremy Benstein points out, desalination enthusiasts neglect to acknowledge current desalination addresses a short term challenge (water scarcity) while exacerbating a long term problem (climate change), which itself is contributing to the water scarcity. The technological paradigm has given birth to the ecological crisis. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” taught Albert Einstein. We therefore cannot expect technology alone to solve our ecological problems, because they are in fact spiritual ones.
How is this the case with water? As I wrote in Canfei Nesharim’s Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment, in partnership with Jewcology, human beings depend on a sufficient supply of high quality fresh water for their survival. Because of this essential dependence, Jewish sources equate water with life.
The Talmud teaches that G-d directly waters the land of Israel and the rest of the world is watered by a messenger. Yet 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. (By comparison, New York City averages between 710 and 1,140 millimeters of precipitation per year.) Since water is a sign of blessing, would not Indonesia be a more appropriate candidate for the Holy Land, as it receives six times as much precipitation, and is the wettest country in the world?
This water insecurity is by divine design, to help us realize that God is the ultimate Provider of water and all our needs. The land of Israel contrasts with the lands nourished by the Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris rivers. In those river valleys, farmers are able to irrigate their crops year-round from a reliable water source. Yet until the 20th century, most agriculture in Israel was rain-fed and not irrigated. The seven species that the Torah associates with the Land of Israel (grapes, olives, dates, pomegranates, figs, wheat, and barley) are all species that do not require irrigation in order to survive. The farmers who planted, tended, and harvested these particular crops depended on the winter rains in order to eat and live. In their acute need for rain each year, they depended on God who provided it, a spiritual reality that was not present in the more water abundant river valleys of nearby civilizations.
Which brings me back to my son’s comment about the rain. The younger generation is growing up with a belief that the water comes from the faucet — it always has, and it seemingly always will. Yet unless we change our business as usual approach to living on this planet, the heavens and clouds will bear witness to our imbalance. We can start by conserving water in all areas of our life, and reducing our carbon footprint by eating less meat and flying less. We can change course while we still have time.