During the High Holy Days when we are asked to take stock of our own lives and to squarely confront our own mortality, it is appropriate to also examine the well-being of the larger Creation upon which we depend, and of which we are a part. When we consider water, it has been quite a year indeed. We have witnessed a frightening series of droughts, forest fires, floods, ice melts, heat waves, and other extreme weather events. On top of these natural phenomena, hydrofracking has emerged as one of the most significant environmental issues of our time. Kyle Rabin, Director of GRACE Foundation’s Water and Energy Programs, notes that, “It takes 4.5 million gallons of water to drill and fracture a typical deep shale gas well, and up to 1 million gallons of that hazardous water-sand-chemical mixture flows back up to the surface which, if mishandled, can pose a threat to nearby water resources.”
The Torah is full of references to “mayim chayim,” “living waters.” The language of mayim chayim is used in a number of contexts. It is used to describe the fresh, potable water that Isaac’s servants find when re-digging Abraham’s stopped wells (Genesis 26:19), and by the prophet Jeremiah who refers to the Creator as the “Source of Living Waters,” (Jeremiah 17:13). Finally, the language of “living waters” in used commonly in the context of ritual purification for both people and for objects (Numbers 19:17 for example).
The common thread between these various uses of “mayim chayim” is water’s primary association with existence and well-being. In each of these cases, water is meant to be taken both literally and metaphorically as a substance upon which humans, and all life, depends. The rabbis later came to distinguish “living water” to be found in flowing forms such as rain, streams, lakes and springs from “dead water” that has been sitting stagnant in a well or closed body of water and is, therefore, unacceptable for purification purposes.
Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, the one-day festival at the end of Sukkot, are the days most associated with water and rain in our tradition. On Shmini Atzeret we will recite the hauntingly beautiful Prayer for Rain. The conclusion of this prayer pleads, “You are our God. Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall. May it bring blessing and not curse. May it bring life and not death. May it bring bounty and not famine.”
We are living in a day when rain is falling as a curse. Rain is bringing death. And a lack of rain is bringing famine. The US’s current unsound agricultural system requires 80% of our total annual water consumption.
At the Jewish Farm School we have just launched a powerful “Prayer for Rain” video and crowd sourcing project that includes a diverse cross-section of people reading an adaptation of this prayer. The themes of the prayer are connected to contemporary issues related to clean water, sustainable agriculture and climate change. Please watch the video, join the project and learn more about fracking and other water issues here.
On this Sukkot, may we wake up to the damage we are doing to the Living Waters. May we have the strength of character, the will and the heart to protect our planet’s waterways as if they were the arteries and veins running through our own bodies. And this year, may water be for life and not for death.
Rabbi Jacob Fine is the Rabbi and Director of Programs for the Jewish Farm School and Project Director for Feast Forward. Jacob is a recognized leader and innovator in the field of Jewish environmental and food education and serves on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Food Justice Sub-Committee. Jacob loves water.