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This Week In Torah

Water, water everywhere, which we will fight to drink

In parshat tol’dot, we read this week about Isaac living in the valley of Gerar with his wife Rebecca and his two children Jacob and Esau. While in that valley, “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, "The water is ours." He named that well Esek, because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land."[1]

I believe that water, not oil or gas, is our most valuable resource. It comprises a vast portion of our bodies, and were it not for water we would not be alive. While our Earth has approximately 336 million cubic miles of water, only 2.5% of it is potentially potable freshwater. Of that comparably small amount of freshwater, nearly 70% of it is locked up in glaciers and ice caps (which thanks to climate change, is now melting into our oceans). To make matters worse, when examining the water to which we have access, another close to 70% of it is trapped in ground ice and permafrost. [2] This leaves us trying to support a global population of over 7 billion people with a very small amount of dearly precious water.[3]

It should come as no surprise that like our biblical ancestors, we have been quarrelling over water for years. In a 2006 opinion article in the New York Times, Kevin Watkins and Anders Bemtell argued that we are entering an age of “hydrological warfare.” They cited for examples Israel bombing irrigation canals along the Litani river in the Lebanon war, and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka causing a full-fledged military assault by not opening sluice gates for rice farmers.[4] In November 2010, the fighting between two sub-clans in central Somalia over water and grazing pasture left 20 people dead and displaced many thousands of families.[5]


More recently, our water situation has become more tenuous due to pollution.  It has affected our fishing industry[6], been linked to health problems like cancer and neurological disorders in humans[7], wreaked havoc on our ecosystems and has killed jobs here in America.[8] This is clearly an issue that requires our attention due the impact it has on us here and for our friends across the world.

Thankfully, we have already begun to take some action. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act that began in 1948 that was then expanded and rebranded the Clean Water Act of 1972 started the fight to keep our water safe and clean.[9] In this year’s midterm election, Athens, Ohio along with cities in Texas and California banned fracking[10], a procedure that has been shown to cause massive damage to our water supply.[11]

However, this is not enough. In our Midrash, we are charged to “Be careful that you do not ruin and destroy my world...”[12] We have an obligation to do our part to preserve and protect our most treasured possession on the planet. We can do so by using our sprinklers less, or by shortening our showers. We can use low-flush toilets as well as water-efficient clothes washers and dishwashers. We can turn off the faucet when we brush our teeth, or wash our fruits and vegetables in a bowl. Every action we take, no matter how small, will make a difference, because “if you destroy [the Earth], there is no one to repair it after you.”[13]


לא עליך המלאכה לגמור‫, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה


lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena


“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”


Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16




Cantor Rick Lawrence


[1] Genesis 26:18-22

[2] The World's Water. (2014, March 17). Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html

[3] (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.worldometers.info/

[4] Bemtel, A., & Watkins, K. (2006, August 23). A global problem: How to avoid war over water. The New York Times. Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/opinion/23iht-edwatkins.2570814.html

[5] SOMALIA: Fight over water, pasture sends hundreds fleeing. (2010, November 9). IRIN: Humanitarian News and Analysis. Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://www.irinnews.org/report/91034/somalia-fight-over-water-pasture-sends-hundreds-fleeing

[6] Alvarez, L. (2013, June 2). A Fight Over Water, and to Save a Way of Life. The New York Times. Retrieved November 13, 2014.

[7] Water Pollution in the Great Lakes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://www.great-lakes.net/teach/pollution/water/water3.html

[8] Effects of water pollution. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://enviropol.com/index.php/effects-of-water-pollution

[9] Summary of the Clean Water Act. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://www2.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act

[10] Gaworecki, M. (2014, November 5). Voters Ban Fracking In Texas, California, And Ohio. Retrieved November 13, 2014, from http://www.desmogblog.com/2014/11/05/voters-ban-fracking-texas-california-and-ohio

[11] Brantley, S. (2014, November). How Fracking Impacts Our Water: The Pennsylvania Experience. In NGWA Workshop—Groundwater Quality and Unconventional Gas Development: Is There a Connection?. Ngwa.

[12] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13

[13] Ibid


Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor Richard Lawrence