Purifying Water and Sewer Water

This week’s Torah portion, “Khukat,” deals with several kinds of water, but not untreated sewer water flowing from settlements into Palestinian fields.  We first are commanded how to make the purifying “waters of lustration” created from the ashes of a red heifer.  We are also told that in many situations we must bathe ourselves when we are ritually unclean. Immediately after the death of Miriam, the Israelites again complain that they lack water.  Moses is punished for bringing forth water from the rock by striking it, rather than speaking to it. Our sages teach of “Miriam’s well,” a travelling well that accompanied the Israelites in the desert because of the merit of Miriam, and disappeared after her death.  The Israelites try to negotiate permission to cross Edomite territory, and pay for the water they need, but the Edomites refuse.

This week I was in the Palestinian village of Turmos Aya to protect them when they were watering trees in an area where settlers had caused trouble and uprooted trees in the past.  On the way, a villager asked us to take a look at a road that had extended from the new settlement of Amichai, created for those whose homes in the Amona outpost were destroyed because they were built on private Palestinian land.  The outrage over the fact that the Israeli High Court occasionally forces the evacuation of homes built on stolen land was the impetus for the “Legalization of Theft Law” now being challenged in court.

We were told that, if we looked closely, we would be able to see pipes installed along the road.  When they villagers wanted to investigate, the army chased them away.  They suspected that, as is the case with a number of settlements, untreated effluents were flowing into their fields.  I didn’t want to risk drawing attention before we had finished irrigating the trees.  Afterwards, we walked up alone to the road.  At a certain point, the stench was unmistakable.  Sure enough, quite impure water was flowing into the fields below.  Not quite the waters of lustration.

I would like to believe that the settlers who had been so traumatized by being evicted from their homes would have some empathy for others.  I confess that I haven’t yet had an opportunity to speak with them, and don’t know that they would agree to speak with me.  However, I sadly conclude that, just as the holiness of the Land of Israel morally and spiritually blinded them to God’s Image in the Palestinians whose land they had stolen, they were now blinded to the humanity of those whose fields they were contaminating. Apparently the Land itself is less holy when non-Jews are already contaminating it.

I fantasized that if I could just inform them, they would say that they hadn’t know, and would correct this immediately.  However, I had to disabuse myself of that hopeful thought.  This was a very intentionally created system piping stinking waste water into the fields.  If it is OK in other settlements, why not here?

In the Talmud we are taught that somebody who confesses their sins without any intent of changing their ways is like the person immerses in ritual waters order to purify him/herself, while continuing to hold a defiling object in his/her hand. (Ta’anit 17a).  Our court tried to purify us by removing buildings on stolen private land.  However, we had no intent of changing our ways.  We build another settlement, at least 40 dunams of which is built on private Palestinian land, not to mention that we unilaterally determine what is “State Land,” and appropriate it for ourselves.  If we accepted the 4th Geneva Convention as applying, that State Land would be for Palestinian use.  Even if we don’t apply international law, State Land could be used for the good of all.

The Talmud also teaches that infinite amounts of water can’t purify us when we continue to hold that unclean thing in our hands.  Ultimately, what is defiling is ruling over another people without either making them part of our democracy, nor affording them the protections of international law.

On this Shabbat, may we learn to let go of the practices and the possessions that continue to defile us, even as we seek to live good and holy lives. Our sages taught that Miriam’s sustaining well still exists, if we look for it.  Let’s look inside ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.