Water gives life, and water destroys life. It is sustainer and destroyer, and the running theme from the beginning of the Torah to its end, when the Jews are standing at the banks of the Jordan River, waiting to enter the Promised Land of Israel.
I’d never seen the metaphor and the theme until yesterday, at synagogue, when Rabbi Aaron Bergman took us through a study of Torah in which he showed how a theme of water runs throughout this holy text. It was so vivid, so obvious – the parting of the sea in the Exodus story, a metaphor of the birth canal and the slaves emerging as Jews, reborn after proceeding through the water.
In Judaism, when you convert, you dip into the mikvah, a ritual bath filled by rain water and city water that enacts a spiritual cleansing and rebirth. And I started to think about the holy water in other religions, the mere concept of water as purifying, as changing you from one state to another.
Which of course brought me back to the firm notion that we are all the same, regardless of what we believe. Our roots, our symbols, our beliefs, our fears – same.
So what, exactly, creates divisions between communities and people?
Rabbi Bergman posited that as the Jews stood on the banks of the Jordan, about to enter Israel and begin their lives in the Holy Land as Jews, they faced a question of whether they would face their fears and start fresh, or let their fears guide their lives and keep them from embarking on something new.
In fact, he pointed out that throughout the Torah, there is story of how the characters fear the lack of water, they argue over access to water and who owns the rights to wells, and that all this fear really represents their fear of being unable to solve a problem or figure out a workable solution.
To take it a step further, consider the possibility that the real division between people is one of whether we will embrace the possibility of a new day and a new possibility or stay stuck in our fears, like the mud that won’t let us move forward.
(Funny – mud is dirt plus water. And why is every picture on the Internet about someone being stuck in the mud porn involving scantily-clad women? I didn’t see that one coming.)
Not only is water symbolic of life and death, sustainer and destroyer, it is a perfect example of our human need to spiritualize elements of earth. Nearly every world religion glorifies, prays to or ritualizes water.
At the same time, one in eight people on our planet lack access to clean drinking water. In West Virginia this week, water has turned toxic due to a chemical spill, putting so many people at risk and without water for drinking or bathing for days on end.
As with all things religious, we arrogantly think we own our water sources. We fight over it, we throw garbage and waste into it, we think it will last forever.
The only way we reach spiritual heights is by respecting all flowing life and
maintaining the highest level of existence.
It’s amazing to think that with a dip in water or a swipe of it across our skin, we are given another chance. Or perhaps it’s that we give ourselves another chance. A chance to start over, a chance to imagine a new beginning and a new way of doing things.
We accept this concept of renewal and enact it with ritual to refresh our belief in the good of humanity. Because it is all good.
In yesterday’s Torah portion, we read about how the Jews sing and dance in celebration of their deliverance from Egypt after they crossed through the sea. The text of the actual song in the Torah is laid out differently than all other text – like a poem, my daughter pointed out when we looked at it in synagogue yesterday – with stanzas and space between words, to show how special it is, how different, how important.
And we learned that we can sing and dance and celebrate our deliverance, our relief, and our freedom – but we can never celebrate the death of someone else, even someone evil. So when the sea swallowed up the charioteers from the Egyptian army, we are to understand that they, too, were God’s creation.
Water gives life. Water ends life. We need water to live. We need belief that transcends the ordinary and creates the spiritual to live, as well. Otherwise, it just doesn’t seem worth it.