David Walk

Water, Water Everywhere

So, just how important is water? Very! It is generally estimated that a human can live without water for only three days, but one can live without food for up to seven. Plus, if one has plentiful water, a person can live for up to three months without solid nourishment. Our bodies are about 60% water. Scientists are so confident that water is crucial for life that the search for extraterrestrial life (ET’s) focuses on planets in the Goldilocks Zone, not too hot, not too cold, but just right for liquid water. This week we focus on a Torah reading (at least in Eretz Yisrael) which really fixates on the importance of water.

The parsha begins with the laws of ritual purity (TUMAH and TAHARAH), and the word MAYIM appears ten times in various guises. The next topic in our reading is the death of Miriam, and, of course, that sad event resulted in the disappearance of the miraculous well which had followed the Jews through their travels in the MIDBAR. This lack of water caused great grumbling, and ended up with the ‘sin’ of hitting the rock, which precipitated punishments for Moshe and Aharon. Then with the passing of Aharon, we have a quick recap of the nation’s journey highlighting Yam Suf and water issues. 

Finally, we have warfare with the nations in the Trans-Jordan, featuring a discussion about the water resources in that area. Plus, we have poetic references to water (NACHAL, streams; SUFA, floods, BE’ER, well) in the triumphant poetry about these conflicts. We end up with nine watery terms in this closing section of the Torah reading.

Professor Everett Fox points out that these grumblings about water in reality reflect a lack of faith in God. In Devarim, the very description of Eretz Yisrael is based on this permanent reliance on God for water resources. This is contrasted with the situation in Egypt, ‘For Eretz Yisrael is not like Egypt, which irrigates itself…It (Eretz Yisrael) is a land that God supervises, it is always under the scrutiny of God’ (Devarim 11:10 & 12). Egypt was a ‘gift of the Nile’, while Israel requires us to pray to God for sufficient life giving water.

Rav Asher Meir points out that actually there are two kinds of water. There is the water that emerges ‘alive’ (MAYIM CHAYIM) from the earth through natural sources. Then there is the MAYIM which we dispense with a vessel (KLI). This second category is water which we see as involving human action. Washing of hands requires the person to apply the water. This is seen in the blessing that we have ‘taken’ (NETILAT) our hands. We are in charge and responsible. As opposed to TEVILA (immersion) in a Kosher Mikve, which is ‘living water’ from nature, and therefore God.

As a result of this understanding that there are two kinds of water: the water we are granted (MAYIM CHAYIM) and the water we work to acquire (MAYIM SHE’UVIM). Our parsha discusses both categories. The water which helped the Jews defeat our enemies in the Transjordan was a gift from God. The water from Miriam’s Well and from hitting the rock was water we had worked for or earned. Why is this distinction so important?

To help us better understand that question, we must go to our most famous water based metaphor. Towards the end of his life Moshe compared his LEKACH (merchandise, products, Torah teachings) to various forms of precipitation in his poetic valedictory address: Let my teaching (LIKCHI) fall like rain and my word settle like dew, like gentle rain on new grass and showers on tender plants (Devarim 32:2). It’s important to notice the different iterations of water to remind us that Torah also comes in many forms.

Basically, we divide Torah material into two major categories: Torah She’bichtav (the written canon) and Torah She’ba’al Peh (the oral tradition). I think these two major categories can be compared to MAYIM CHAYIM which flows naturally towards us and MAYIM SHE’UVIM which is drawn from nature through human efforts.

Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand uses four metaphors to describe his LEKACH, his Torah legacy to the Jewish nation. I think that in that context Moshe is describing the famous four fold methodology for developing Torah ideas, P’SHAT, literal meaning; REMEZ, difficult to derive textual hints; DERUSH, homiletic analysis; and SOD, secrets which require the Divine Spirit’s help to decipher.

It’s a fascinating reality about the book of Bamidbar that unique to this volume of Moshe’s Torah, there is a complete mixing of narrative texts with Halachik material. So, we’re often called upon to discover the connection between the mitzvot and the historical accounts which are juxtaposed to each other. 

In our parsha, it’s relatively easy. We have the laws of purifying the TUMA’A which develop from contact with death, and then we have the death of two of the Torah’s most popular characters, Miriam and Aharon.  And then there’s the water.

Water plays a major role in the purification process. Water plays a crucial role in the deaths of these two heroes. As I discussed at the beginning of this piece, water is life giving and preserving. So, is Torah. We always experience Torah as Torat Chayim, a living companion to the Jewish nation.

Water is critical to the purification process. It is also critical to the legacy of Aharon and Miriam. It is also the elixir which allows our nation to survive and persevere. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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