by Tanya Lat
Water is essential to life on earth. Water covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and makes up 55%-78% of the human body. Without food and water, humans will last for only 3-5 days. Clean water is a basic requirement to sustain human, plant, and animal life and ensure the healthy functioning of all the world’s ecosystems.
Water also gives life in a broader sense. People need clean water and sanitation to sustain their health and maintain their dignity. It is also essential to spirituality: in Judaism and many religions around the world, water is considered as a symbol of purity and cleansing and is used in ritual washing and purification.
We see this in the Parshat Ki Tisa, where G-d orders Moses to make a bronze laver, fill it with water, and place it between the Meeting Tent and the altar. Aaron and his sons are then strictly instructed to wash their hands and feet with water before entering the Meeting Tent, and again when approaching the altar of sacrifice, “lest they die.” [ref]Ex 30:17-21[/ref] This washing was an indispensable requirement: failure to observe this rendered the priest’s service invalid.[ref]Nahum Sarna, ed. (1991), The JPS Torah Commentary.[/ref] Talmudic sources describe this act of washing as “sanctifying” the hands and feet and an act of respect for G-d.[ref]Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. (2004), The Jewish Study Bible, citing m. Yoma 3.2 and Ramban. [/ref] One does not approach G-d unwashed and unclean.
Water again figures prominently a few chapters later, when Moses descends Mt. Sinai to find the people of Israel dancing around the golden calf they had made during his absence. In his anger, Moses took the golden calf and ground it down to powder which he scattered on the water and made the people drink.[ref]Exodus 32:20[/ref] Evidence suggests that this water was the stream that flowed down Mount Sinai [ref]See Deuteronomy 9:21[/ref] and possibly the only source of water for the entire camp.[ref]Sarna, ibid.[/ref] Thus, no individual could escape drinking this mixture.
Why would Moses do this to their sole source of drinking water? Rabbinic exegesis views this forced drinking as a trial by ordeal designed to identify those guilty for this grave sin, similar to the “waters of bitterness” ritual administered to test the guilt of the suspected adulteress in Numbers 5:12-31.[ref]Avodah Zarah 44a, as cited in the JPS Torah Commentary (1991) and the Jewish Study Bible (2004).[/ref] This act was, quite literally, “to make Israel choke on its own perversion.” [ref]Walter Bruggemann (1994), The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.[/ref]
But was everyone guilty of this act of idolatry? According to midrash, the women of Israel refused to give their jewelry for the creation of the golden calf, so much so that their husbands had to forcibly remove their earrings from their ears.[ref]Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 45, as cited in Rachel Travis (2010), Parshat Ki Tisa 5771, http://ajws.org/what_we_do/education/publications/dvar_tzedek/5771/ki_tisa.html#f5.%5B/ref%5D It is possible that some of the men were also opposed to the creation of the golden calf but were powerless to stop it. Despite their opposition, these voiceless, powerless women and men had to drink these “ordeal waters” together with those responsible.
Today, poor people drink “ordeal waters” on a daily basis. More than a billion poor people in developing countries have access to less than 20 liters of water a day, the minimum amount of water required to meet basic drinking and personal hygiene needs.[ref]Two-thirds of these people survive on less than $2 a day, while one-third survive on less than $1 a day.[/ref] These people live more than one kilometer from the nearest safe water source, often collecting water from drains, ditches, or streams that are often shared with animals and infected with harmful bacteria.[ref]UNDP (2006), “Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis,” Human Development Report 2006.[/ref] Millions of women and young girls in Africa and Asia bear the brunt of this burden, walking several hours and across vast distances daily, sacrificing their time and their education to collect water for themselves and their families. Compounding this lack of access to clean water is pollution of existing water sources. In humanity’s pursuit of wealth and riches through mining and other industrial activities, water and life are all too often the primary casualties.[ref]One stark example is the Marcopper mining accident that took place in 1996 on the island of Marinduque in the Philippines. 3 million tons of mine waste leaked into the 26-kilometer Boac River, contaminating the drinking water that residents relied on and killing the river. Fifteen years after, the residents of Marinduque are still feeling the devastation of that incident. It was – and still remains – the worst man-made disaster in Philippine history.[/ref]
For millions of women, inadequate access to clean water for hygiene and sanitation is also a source of shame and insecurity. A low-caste Indian woman explains it eloquently:
“We feel so dirty and unclean in the summer. We do not wash our clothes for weeks. People say, these Dalits are dirty and they smell. But how can we be clean without water?”[ref]UNDP, ibid, citing Deepa Joshi (2005), “Water Access, Poverty and Social Inclusion in India.”[/ref]
There is more than enough water to meet humanity’s needs. Water scarcity is a problem only because water is unequally distributed between and within countries and the needs of the poor are seldom prioritized. Providing the poor with clean water and sanitation would profoundly shape their life chances and “act as the catalyst for a giant advance in human development.”[ref]UNDP, ibid.[/ref]
Water is essential to our life and shalom as one human family. With climate change and heightened competition for water resources, it becomes imperative to uphold the right of the poor to clean water and sanitation. May we do our part to transform their “ordeal waters” into life-giving streams that nourish both body and soul.
ABOUT PARSHAT KI TISA
Parashah/Parsha – which means “portion” in Hebrew – pertains to the assigned Torah reading for the week. Parashat Ki Tisa – “Ki Tisa” is Hebrew for “when you take” – corresponds to Exodus 30:11-34:35. It is the 21st weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading, and the 9th in the book of Exodus.