This week's parsha, during which Moses strikes a rock with his rod to receive water, is an apt time to consider the global issue of water security.
Parashat Chukat is awash in water: water for bathing, for washing clothes, for purification of the living and the dead, and of various utensils. After a full chapter of details of the uses of water, Miriam dies.
“And there was no water for the congregation …” Parched from their wilderness wandering, grief-stricken at the loss of their leader, the people quarrel with Moses: “Would that we, too, had perished like our brothers … This is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.”
The people are exhausted and dispirited; the days of their journey have stretched into years. Why, they cry, were they taken “to this evil place,” so “that we and our cattle should die?”
Moses and Aaron, stunned by their sister Miriam’s death, fall on their faces before the Holy One. God sees their pain and instructs Moses to take his rod and speak to “the rock before their eyes.” God assures Moses, “It shall give forth water … ”
Water from a rock? Either in disbelief, out of exhaustion, or simply misunderstanding God’s direction, Moses gathers the congregation and asks those assembled, “Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?”
Moses strikes the rock twice and water gushes out. But do his words mock the people, or God? His actions have dire consequences. Because God interprets his striking the rock as a lack of faith, God forbids Moses from entering Canaan with the people.
One message of this portion is that there is sufficient water for everyone; one simply must know where to find it. Recently, scientists from Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico located a reservoir of water three times as big as the world’s oceans hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the planet. Yet we still live in a time of massive water insecurity.
While more people have access to safe water than ever before, billions live in areas without sufficient water to drink, to cook and to bathe. Fewer than one in three individuals has access to a toilet. And as we know from the recent crippling droughts in the western United States, water security is a global issue.
If we allocate our resources to addressing the urgent needs of physical and economic water scarcity by better harvesting and distributing global water reserves, we can begin to address the inequities between those of us who enjoy water in abundance and our neighbors in the developing world who continue to suffer the lack of this basic source of life.
Near the end of this portion, after detours around and forays through hostile territories, Moses follows God’s direction and points the people to the well of Be’er. With gratitude, the Israelites raise their voices in song in appreciation for God’s gift: “Spring up, O well, sing to it!”
Tradition teaches that this is one of Miriam’s wells, oases that appeared throughout the people’s desert wanderings. What are the Miriam’s wells for the millions of women and children who suffer from water insecurity today? We can and must share our strength and our songs celebrating the sustaining power of water in a world where too few have access to water upon which life and human dignity depends.
Read more about water security at: water.org and weforum.org/content/global-agenda-council-water-security-2012-2014.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the editor of The Open Door Haggadah, serves as a spiritual director in Philadelphia.