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Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

April 17, 2015

While we here in California are perhaps only beginning to take the drought we are experiencing seriously, Jewish tradition has contended with droughts of major proportions since ancient times.

Abraham had barely arrived in Canaan, when drought and famine sent him down to Egypt.  Two generations later his grandson Jacob follows his own son Joseph down to Egypt as well in the face of an extended period of crop failure. The story of Ruth begins with a famine caused by lack of rain which forces Elimelech and Naomi to leave Beit Lechem, the bread basket of ancient Israel, and make their way to Moab.

Archeologists at Tel Aviv University suggest in fact that it was a series of major droughts between 1250 and 1100 BCE which lead to the collapse of the major powers in the Ancient Middle East, allowing for the rise of the Israelite kingdom.  BY studying fossilized pollen they were able to track the impact of drought on the ancient Hittite and Egyptian Empires.

Drought continued to plague the Israelites after the establishment of the monarchy, the most famous drought being that under King Ahab. At that time things were so bad that the king himself went out searching for the prophet Elijah for relief. There was no water or grass for the horses and mules and so his majesty was forced to go on foot.

The prophet Amos describes a drought so bad that people wander from one town to another searching for water, yet no water is found to quench their thirst. Jeremiah talks about the cisterns being without water -- those who go to them return with empty vessels.

Among the curses which we find at the end of the book of Leviticus drought plays a large part.  Failure to follow the requirements of God’s covenant will lead to the sky turning like iron and the ground like copper—so unrelenting will the drought be.  The famous passage which follows the Shema and V’ahavtah, removed from the prayer book of the Reform movement, warns also of the heavens being shut up so that there is no rain.

Droughts continued to persist in Roman times as well and an entire tractate of the Talmud deals with fasts, primarily called in the face of drought.  If the rainy season began and rain did not fall, fasts were called on Mondays and Thursday, repeating throughout the season. Rabbis whose prayers could bring rain, like Honi and other miracle workers, were greatly revered and the words they spoke recorded in the hopes that these words would induce God to take pity on the world once again. Interestingly it was often not the most famous rabbi, or the one in the position of greatest prestige whose prayer brought rain, but instead a someone of lesser significance, a nobody, whose purity of heart seemed to move God into action. All through later times Jews have continued to pray for rain according to the calendar of the land of Israel.

Today water continues to be a challenge for the modern state of Israel. Water issues complicate Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and with its neighbors. While we were in Israel this winter there was quite a bit of discussion of a desalination as a new source of water. Israel currently has the world’s largest and cheapest reverse osmosis desalination plant. Written up recently in the MIT technology review, its energy consumption is the lowest in the world.

This new plant is located 10 miles south of Tel Aviv and provides 20% of Israel’s water currently. Several other plants together provide another 20% of Israel’s water today with plans for desalination to provide 50% of Israel’s water within two years. But desalination is not a remedy without environmental costs, so Israel is not depending on desalination alone.

Israel is also outstanding in its reuse of water for agriculture, in its creation of software to provide a warning system for leaks, and in making it a norm to provide a careful accounting of every drop of water.  The climate in Israel, where drought is a perpetual problem, has forced the country to go to unusual lengths to lower water consumption. In Israel, 75 percent of the country’s sewage is recycled, the highest percentage in the world, and more than 50 percent of water used in agriculture comes from treated sewage. Israel has also been able to lower leakage to less than 10 percent, while worldwide 25 to 30 percent of the world’s water is wasted because of faults in distribution. With the anticipation of droughts becoming more widespread and more pronounced in the Middle East, conflict over water could become worse. This winter we found many NGO’s working to make Israel a model in the region with the hope that water diplomacy will improve its relations with neighbors.

There is much we can learn here in California about Israel’s efforts to avoid water waste and to reuse water.  Technologies that are common around the world in terms of water saving, like mixed flow toilets,  are still not typical here in California. But what about Jewish traditional teachings about drought? When we read these stories in the Talmud, about beseeching God for rain, we can empathize with the desperation of the people, but we do not share their belief that rain or the lack thereof is a reward or punishment of a supernatural sort.

Still I believe that even with our difference in perspective, we can learn something important from the understanding of drought in our sacred literature.

As moderns we tend to view our life story as the story of an individual. We focus on what I need, what I want, what I achieve. We are much less concerned with the matrix in which we live-the community of people, those whose lives depend on our lives and those whose upon whom our lives depend.

In the Bible all blessings and curses are in the plural. They were not directed to the individual, but to the community. For me that is an important reminder that just looking at things through the lens of our own individual experience is insufficient. We should understand that our fate is tied up with the fate of others.

Rain doesn’t fall on one head or one house. And the message of the drought is not for each of us to dig our own well. The drought is a reminder that this problem, like other problems we face, will have to be dealt with on a communal level. The ways we have of coping with drought- conservation, water capture and water reuse, require a community’s response. So too the introduction of techniques that use less water like drip irrigation, use of native species,  and aquaponics. Shifting production to less water intensive crops will require a communal response, as the hidden hand of the market alone will not provide for a socially responsible solution.


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