THE WAY OF WATER

July 9th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

The Talmud has a fascinating origin story for Rabbi Akiva, one of its greatest sages. His formative years were not spent in the study halls, but rather as a shepherd in the Judean hills. One day, as he tended his sheep, he observed how the constant drip of water onto a rock over a long period of time had worn it away, leaving a groove in its surface.

It was an “Aha!” moment for him. He realized that if something as soft as water could make an impression on something as hard as rock, then the teachings of Torah could surely penetrate his heart. With this realization, he immediately committed himself to a life of Torah study.

Rabbi Akiva would go on to become the formative rabbinic leader of his age, whose impact on Judaism is felt to this day. This remarkable story illustrates the power and persistence of water, a force that shapes and sustains life, and serves as a metaphor for Torah, spirituality, and the essence of faith.

In the Western world, water is considered as readily available as air—until it isn’t, and then all hell breaks loose. Recently, Flint, Michigan, passed a grim milestone—ten years since its water supply became so contaminated that residents have been forced to rely on bottled water for their daily needs.

Flint was once a thriving industrial hub known primarily for its involvement in the automobile industry, particularly as the birthplace of General Motors. This bustling city was home to a resilient community, largely composed of working-class residents, whose lives were shaped by the rise and fall of the automotive manufacturing sector.

The water crisis began in 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to cut costs. This ill-conceived decision led to the leaching of lead from old pipes into the water supply, exposing thousands of residents to toxic levels.

The health implications were devastating, particularly for children, who suffered from developmental delays and other serious health issues. The crisis revealed deep systemic failures and a breach of public trust, as officials repeatedly downplayed the severity of the contamination.

The long-term impact on residents of the Flint water crisis has been severe and multifaceted. Prolonged exposure to lead-contaminated water has resulted in numerous health problems, particularly among children, who have suffered from developmental delays, learning difficulties, behavioral issues, and a range of physical health problems, including kidney damage and impaired growth. The constant stress of dealing with contaminated water has also led to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and PTSD within the community.

Economic difficulties have compounded these health issues, with residents facing significant medical expenses, the need to purchase bottled water, and declining property values. The educational setbacks are notable, with a significant increase in the number of children qualifying for disability services due to the cognitive and behavioral impacts of lead exposure, straining the resources of local schools.

One of the most profound impacts has been the loss of trust in public institutions. The mishandling of the crisis and subsequent cover-up efforts eroded confidence in local, state, and federal authorities, making it difficult for residents to trust future public health and safety communications. Despite recent improvements in water quality and the completion of over 97% of lead service line replacements, skepticism about the safety of tap water persists among residents.

Earlier this week, restoration work began to repair lawns and sidewalks at over 1,800 homes in Flint where lead service lines have been replaced. The city, in partnership with the state, is funding this restoration, which is expected to cost over $4.5 million and will be completed by next August.

Despite these efforts, Flint has been ordered to pay $62,000 in attorney fees due to contempt of court for missing deadlines related to service line replacements. Thousands of lives have been scarred, political careers have ended in disgrace, billions have been spent—simply because of an interrupted and impaired water supply. It truly makes you think.

This situation brings to mind an episode from Parshat Chukat – when the water supply for the Israelites in the wilderness suddenly ceased after the death of Miriam. The nation complained bitterly to Moses, and after consulting God, Moses sought out the rock that was the source of the spring water and ensured that the water began to flow again. But in the aftermath of this incident, God informed Moses that he had acted improperly and as a result would not lead the nation into Canaan for the conquest of the Promised Land.

The commentaries disagree about Moses’ “sin” – what did he do to deserve such a devastating consequence? According to Maimonides, Moses’ failure was rooted in his impulsive anger at the Israelites in the face of their desperate pleas for water. This lack of insight into the impact of not having water reflected a detachment that was not merely an error, but revealed a failure of leadership and a lack of empathy.

But there is a deeper metaphor here – the one that Rabbi Akiva stumbled upon so many centuries later. Just as society cannot survive without a ready supply of pure water, the Jewish people need a continuous flow of Torah, so that the rock of their material existence is dented by the spiritual impact of the water that steadily drips into their consciousness.

Miriam’s rock was a spring that symbolized a pure and life-giving source of spiritual nourishment. The nation’s urgent thirst for Miriam’s water should have been seen by Moses for what it was – the need for the springwaters of Torah to flow continuously, without break, so that the spiritual existence of God’s chosen nation could continue uninterrupted.

Reflecting on the lessons of the Flint water crisis and its biblical parallel in the water crisis after Miriam’s death, we see that water is not just a physical necessity but also a profound symbol of life, trust, and the intricate relationship between a community and its leaders. Just as the Israelites’ survival depended on the continuous flow of pure water from Miriam’s well, so too does the well-being of any community depend on the integrity and purity of its foundational resources, whether it is empathetic leadership or steady spiritual nourishment.

For the Jewish people, this means maintaining a steady and untainted flow of Torah, free from personal agendas and self-indulgent needs. We need it to guide and sustain us through all challenges, ensuring a future rooted in trust, resilience, and enduring faith. Rabbi Akiva’s insight—that consistent, pure Torah study can shape and sustain us—illustrates how the steady-drip approach to Torah has helped the Jewish people endure and thrive despite numerous challenges.

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