The Gift of Water Must Not Be Treated Lightly (Eruvin 16)

Having crossed the Red Sea on dry land, the Children of Israel had finally escaped the clutches of the Egyptians.  But now it was time to mature into a nation ready to receive the Torah.  It was time for their first trial:

“And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.  And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore, the name of it was called Marah.  And the people murmured against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried out to Hashem; and Hashem showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them; and He said: ‘If you shall diligently hearken to the voice of Hashem your God, and do that which is right in His eyes, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am Hashem that heals you.’ And they came to Elim, where were twelve springs of water, and three score and ten palm-trees; and they encamped there by the waters.”

The first trial of our people was the test of water.  Would we appreciate Hashem’s bounty?  Would we understand that even water, that appears to be in such abundance, should not be taken for granted?

It’s a powerful lesson.  But three millennia later, have we learned that lesson?

בְעָא מִינֵּיהּ רַבִּי טַבְלָא מֵרַב: מְחִיצָה תְּלוּיָה מַהוּ שֶׁתַּתִּיר בְּחוּרְבָּה? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אֵין מְחִיצָה תְּלוּיָה מַתֶּרֶת אֶלָּא בַּמַּיִם, קַל הוּא שֶׁהֵקֵלּוּ חֲכָמִים בְּמַיִם.

Rabbi Tavla asked Rav: Does a suspended partition act as if it were a partition that reaches the ground and render it permitted for one to carry in a ruin? Rav said to him: A suspended partition renders it permitted for one to carry only when it is suspended over water, as the Sages treated water more lightly.

Let’s say you have an area surrounded by four walls.  That area is considered a private domain, inside of which one may carry on Shabbat.  Now the law is, as long as the walls are at least ten handbreadths tall, the area inside is still considered enclosed, no matter at what height one is carrying.  The walls are considered to extend to the sky.

But how about the other way around?  Let’s say you have walls that are broken and missing the main pieces at the bottom.  Do we say that the walls extend downwards to the ground?  This scenario our Sages generally did not permit.  They made one exception, however.  If the walls were suspended over an area of water, such as a river or a moat, one could lower a bucket down through the “private domain” to draw water.

While our Sages were willing to treat water more lightly in order to ease our ability to attain drinking water, unfortunately today many of us treat water lightly in the wrong ways.  Most of us live in areas of the world where water costs very little.  We simply turn on the tap and are able to use as much as we want.

And so too many of us abuse this incredible blessing.  We leave the tap running while we brush our teeth.  We take long showers.  And we are slow to fix leaky taps.

Of course, these aren’t new issues.  Those faults were probably more symptomatic of a previous generation.  Nowadays, the concern for water conservation is far more acute.  We now realize how poorly we are treating our limited supply of water.  We pour things down the sink like oil and other insoluble items.

Worse yet, we purchase water bottled in single-use plastics that add to the overall pollution of our planet.  The Almighty has provided water for us in abundance.  And yet, we’ve figured out a way to make it expensive and a major pollutant!

It’s not easy to break the societal mould.  You sit down at a restaurant and hesitate before ordering a pitcher of tap water for fear that the waiter will consider you cheap.  How do you get around that uncomfortable situation?  Here’s how.  You tell them clearly that you’d like a pitcher of water because it’s more environmentally-friendly than bottled water.

The more people that have the courage to ask proudly for the pitcher, the sooner it will become the societal norm.  It’s not embarrassing, it’s a mitzvah.

I must admit that I’m just as guilty as the next person.  It’s one of the greatest challenges of our generation.  But it’s OK to feel challenged.  The test of water appreciation was the first trial that God challenged our ancestors with.

In fact, the Almighty Himself, when He created the world, already demonstrated the importance of water conservation, painstakingly separating the lower waters from the upper waters.  The Holy One blessed be He showed by example that water shouldn’t be taken for granted.  That water is special.  That water is a blessing.  That water must be conserved.

May you always appreciate and respect the Almighty’s great gift of life-sustaining water!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series.
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