“How can this difficulty be dismissed so easily.”
Today’s Daf Yomi with its focus on water impurity is a reminder of how essential water is to our lifeforce. It is easy to take for granted that when the tap is turned on, there will be clean water always available. But that is not the case for many in the world and it might not be the case for us one day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 785 million people lack access to readily available drinking water and 2 billion people drink from contaminated water sources. Many in the world do not have access to readily available water and climate experts have been warning for years that our water sources in the world are under threat.
WHO predicts that by 2025 half the world’s population will be living in “water-stressed” conditions. Just imagine turning on the tap in your home and the water that comes out is brown and murky, or nothing comes out at all. I lived in an old tenement building in the East Village in the 1980s where the tap water was sediment-ridden due to old pipes, but I knew that one day, there would be a way out of my poor graduate student circumstances. Many of the people living in water deprived circumstances have no way out.
And here is an even more frightening statistic from WHO: 22% of heath care facilities have no water service, 21% have no sanitation service and 22% have no waste management service. These healthcare facilities are coping in the middle of a pandemic without reliable, clean water supplies, yet alone personal protective equipment and ventilators. The media has reported that Venezuela’s hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID cases and many do not have water and access to basic supplies.
Contaminated water is not just a third water problem. Flint, Michigan discovered that its water supply was contaminated in 2014 from lead in its aging pipes. And it is not entirely unrealistic to imagine a scenario where major world cities run out of water, which was what almost happened in Cape town, South Africa. There have been warnings for years that Los Angeles could one day run out of water if the west coast continues to experience periods of protracted drought.
Floods and droughts caused by climate change can impact our water supply. Even a city like Miami that is surrounded by water could face a crisis if the sea level continues to rise and flooding contaminates its fresh water supply. This is not unrelated to today’s Daf Yomi discussion on impure water that serves as a source of contamination. And the probability that our global water source will continue to be under stress is not as rare as the sighting of a red heifer high up on a hill.
We are told in today’s reading that purification waters are prepared with the ashes of a red heifer. These waters are used to cleanse someone of impurity who has been exposed to a corpse. If a cow comes into contact with this water his flesh is considered impure. Rabbi Yehuda debates this proposition and says that contrary to popular belief the meat of the cow remains pure. We are told that Rabbi Yehuda retracts his prior opinions on the matter and believes that “there is no impurity of liquids by Torah law at all.”
Unlike the contaminated water in the city of Flint, where there is no such thing as a little lead poisoning, we are told that in the Talmud there are degrees of water impurity. The flesh of the cow that came into contact with water sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer is said to be impure to a “lesser degree.” Rabbi Yehuda in a head-turner, says that the flesh of this much studied cow is not impure in “regard to a severe form of purity.” In other words, the esteemed Rabbi is covering off on both sides of an argument by taking the position of “lesser” and “greater.”
Rav Ashi gets to the really important issue regarding water impurity and it is a relief that someone in today’s reading considers public health. He says that at issue is not the impurity of liquids according to Torah or Rabbinic law, which the Rabbis will argue about until the magical red heifer appears and the sun sets. He says that the issue is that “purification waters become a foul liquid when ingested.”
Water is the source of life. Having access to clean, bountiful water is a basic human right. And yet, our water source is under threat by climate change, urbanization, pollution and neglect. It is not unfathomable to imagine a time when our faucets run dry, our rivers and lakes are polluted, and our ocean levels rise and contaminate our fresh water supply. We have not taken good care of the earth, and the day could come when its resources are dwindled, and it can no longer take care of us.