Water as a Metaphor for a Life of Torah
Water has been in the news a lot this week. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder used his State of the State address to apologize to the residents of Flint — a city of 100,000 residents north of Detroit — for a water contamination crisis that has been ongoing there for almost two years.
In April 2014, Flint switched its drinking water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the taste, odor and color of their tap water, as well as side effects from drinking it. Last October, it emerged that there had been an alarming increase of lead-in-blood levels among Flint residents, and children in particular. The water supply has now been switched back, and a $28 million state rescue package has been granted, but the damage already done will undoubtedly reverberate in the beleaguered town for years to come.
Meanwhile, here in California, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a plan to capture more rain after it emerged that most of the torrential rain that fell on Southern California last week flowed straight into the ocean. Nearly 3 inches of rain actually fell, and its diversion to the ocean, which was once seen as a great way to prevent floods, is now widely understood to be a wasted opportunity. The regulator has set aside $200 million for projects that will collect rain, and here in Los Angeles we plan to collect 3.3 billion more gallons a year from projects already under construction. Eventually we will be collecting 20 billion gallons of rain a year over and above the 10 billion gallons we now collect.
Our Torah portion this week is also dominated by water stories. At first the recently liberated Jews are trapped on the shores of the Red Sea, with the Egyptian cavalry very close behind them, poised to obliterate the nascent nation before they have even had the chance to realize God’s dream of chosen nationhood. Suddenly the waters of the Red Sea miraculously split, allowing the Jews to escape certain death.
The Egyptians follow them onto the seabed but are submerged and drowned, as the water returns to normal. Three days later the Jews find themselves without water in a place called Marah, where the available water supply is bitter and undrinkable. Moshe, at God’s instruction, uses wood to neutralize the bitter taste, and the Jews are then able to drink. At their next stop, Eilim, they find no less than twelve wellsprings. And then, in Rephidim, the Jews discover that they have run out of water and there is no local water supply. God instructs Moshe to use his staff to hit a particular rock, which for the next 40 years miraculously produces enough water for the nation to survive.
Of course we can treat these episodes separately, or even find a common theme that stresses the importance and centrality of water in human life, both in terms of its necessity, and the dangers and challenges it poses in various circumstances. The Talmud sees things differently, however. In discussing the episode at Marah, in tractate Bava Kamma 82a, the gemara notes that it took three days without water before the Jews complained. Water is a code word for Torah, says the gemara, as inferred in Isaiah 55:1, “all who are thirsty, come to the water.” As a result of what happened at Marah, the prophets instituted that no three-day period shall pass without a Torah reading, which is why we read from the Torah on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat.
I want to take this analogy a little further and apply it across the whole Torah portion. The Jews arrived at the Red Sea, a huge and insurmountable body of water, representing the incredible challenge of Torah and all that it entails. “We’d rather go back to Egypt,” they cry out, with Egypt representing the antithesis of a Torah life. But returning to Egypt spells certain death, as the hordes of Egyptian cavalry bearing down on them clearly indicates. Instead God shows them a navigable path through Torah, which allows for a full-fledged physical existence while completely immersed in Torah. If you choose that path, it is also certain that Egypt will be eradicated, because the very Torah that has enveloped you will also protect you from them.
Three days later, the Jews find themselves in Marah. The water there is bitter, alluding to the fact that the Torah and what it represents is not always appealing. Even though the water is there in front of them, and without it they will die, the Jews cite its bitterness and reject it, in what is essentially an act of suicide. Moshe takes the branch of a tree and tosses it into the water, thereby demonstrating that if one sees Torah for what it is, if one understands how crucial it is for survival, one will understand: ‘it is the tree of life for all those who keep hold of it’ Torah is bitter to those who reject it, but it will always be sweet to those who embrace it.
And finally, sometimes we find ourselves in places like Eilim, where water, a.k.a. Torah, is abundant, and we may benefit from it with ease. Occasionally, however, we might find ourselves in Rephidim, a place devoid of Torah, and seemingly devoid of any opportunity to access it. But do not fear. Even in a Torah-deprived wilderness, if you seek it, God will miraculously provide you with the opportunity and ability to drink from its fountain. For — as we are only too aware here in California, and as the residents of Flint can also testify — without water, we are all doomed.