Preserving the Blessing of Water

Both the Torah and science can awaken us to the awareness that our actions impact the entire planet.

By RABBI YONATAN NERIL
May 20, 2011 10:22
Water

Water . (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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For millenia Jews learned the spiritual law communicated by the Torah: the blessing of beneficial rains and crops depends on our acting righteously. In recent decades scientists have also explained that human actions affect the quality and quantity of rain. Today,  both the Torah and science can awaken us to the awareness that our actions impact the entire planet.

Let us begin with a Jewish perspective on rain. Praying for rain is a key part of the spiritual life of a Jew. For almost half of the year, the daily prayers include praise of G-d as the One who “makes the wind blow and the rain descend,” and a request that G-d will “give dew and rain for a blessing on the face of the earth." A special blessing for rain appears in the liturgy of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, at the beginning of Israel's rainy season. We pray that the Divine bring beneficial rain, which falls at the right time to nourish our crops and fills our reservoirs. As the Talmud says, "The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created." (Tractate Ta'anit 8b)

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But it is not enough to just pray for rain. The Torah teaches that our actions impact the rain as well. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, we read that rainfall is a function of our doing G-d's will. If Israel keeps the Torah, G-d says, “I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit... You will eat your food to satiety, and you will live in security in your land, and I will grant peace in the Land." (Leviticus 26:4-6)

This promise of abundant rains and prosperity is followed by a warning that, should Israel ignore the Torah, G-d will “make your skies like iron-” cease all rains, and bring drought, according to the Midrash (Torat Kohanim 26:28), a compilation of teachings from the Jewish oral tradition. Conversely, the fact that we specifically ask that the rain be “for a blessing” acknowledges that too much rain is just as dangerous as not enough. In a number of instances in the Tanakh, G-d sent rain that was a curse, not a blessing. The Flood came to punish the people of that generation for transgressing G-d’s will. The Zohar explains that the rains of blessing only became a destructive flood when the people refused to repent. In the time of the prophet Samuel, G-d brought thunder and rain to chastise the people (I Samuel 12:17-18).

Scientific Views on Human Impact on Rain

The effect of industrialized society on rain through pollutants has been well-known for decades – as the phenomenon called acid rain. Industries, vehicles, and livestock emit sulphur dioxide, nitrous dioxide, and ammonia. These react with water molecules in the atmosphere and produce acids, which come back to land when it rains. Acid rain damages trees and animals, and also impacts certain buildings. It is most pronounced today in the easterns parts of Europe, China, and the United States. 

Сlimate change is another example of human impact on the rain. By burning fossil fuels in our cars, homes, factories, and planes, we are increasing the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. This causes a greenhouse effect, which alters the climate. According to the United States National Drought Mitigation Center, global climate models project that climate change may increase precipitation by 7-15 percent at high latitudes, causing stronger, and potentially more destructive, storms in those areas. Climate change may decrease precipitation at mid- and low-altitudes, where the bulk of farmland lies, contributing to more severe regional droughts. Some scientists link the record-setting intensity of the floods in Pakistan in 2010, the US Midwest in 2011, and the drought in China in 2011, to global climate change.



We not only affect how rain comes down, but also how that rain affects the land when it does fall. With increasing urbanization in the world, land that once soaked up rainwater is being covered in pavement, which prevents the rainwater from replenishing underground aquifers (also referred to as “groundwater” or “the water table”). Aquifers directly provide more than one-third of drinking water in America, and contribute, in some part, to all drinking water sources. In some places, like Florida, aquifers provide 100% of the drinking water as well as the majority of clean water for industrial and agricultural use. When rainwater is prevented from replenishing the water table, one of our most necessary resources-- clean drinking water-- is compromised.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the amount of US land covered by sprawling urban development increased by 50 % during the 1980s and 1990s. Increased building covers the land with impervious paving, which prevents the land from absorbing rains back into the water table. Unabsorbed rainwater becomes runoff, flowing through drainage systems (or causing floods when drains and sewers are overburdened), picking up pollutants along the way, which are then dumped into lakes, streams and oceans. The organizations American Rivers, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Smart Growth America issued a report citing how Atlanta, which was struck by a major drought in 2007, leads American cities in lost rainwater, with up to 132.8 billion gallons lost per year. The report cites how the volume of water lost in the United States each year would provide tens of millions of people their annual water needs.

Impacting large urban areas like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Toronto, this new reality is also quite pronounced in Israel. Several decades from now, a near-continuous urban settlement will likely stretch from the northern coast to the southern coast, from Nahariya to Tel Aviv to Ashkelon to Gaza. Another urban belt extends for tens of miles from Ramallah to Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Travel to any population center in Israel today and you will see the massive infrastructure work being done on roads and highways, adding more impervious paving to a land that is already living at the edge of a water crisis. Depriving the coastal and mountain aquifers of precious rainwater will put further pressure on Israel's limited water resources.

Torah, Science, and Rain

Today we have an unbelievably complex understanding of how the earth's systems work, and how we impact them. In viewing the connection between humans and the environment through scientific analysis and statistics, we must be careful not to forget a key lesson of Leviticus. The Infinite created the world in such a way that, when we contradict G-d's will by living out of balance, our lives are thrown out of balance in response. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi Ashlag, a leading kabbalist of the twentieth century, wrote that G-d established the laws of nature in the world, and a person or society that transgresses one of these laws will be punished by means of nature. He likens nature to a judge G-d established to punish those who violate the laws of nature. We see from this that we cannot ignore the connection between our actions and the physical conditions which surround us. 

Praying for beneficial rain and then ignoring the problems of global warming and unchecked urban development is like praying for good health and then continuing to eat poorly and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. We are acting against our own expressed interests when we excessively burn fossil fuels and contribute to unchecked urban expansion.

Our prayers for beneficial rain are extremely important, and our actions should be consistent with the emphasis of our prayers. We must live as earnestly as we pray. Praying for rain is a beginning, but we must follow through by acting on the awareness that our physical actions also contribute to ensuring that the rains that come are beneficial ones. By living as righteous as possible, we can give our children the gift of a world that is blessed, as G-d promises, with rains of abundance, prosperity and peace.

Suggested Action Items:

- Consider switching to a low flow toilet. Each year, this alone has the potential to save several thousand gallons of water per household.
- Look into using low- flow shower heads, and think about reducing your shower time.
- If you are planning to build a house with a driveway, use pervious paving materials or alternative paving solutions that incorporate plants into the pavement. Advocate for your town to take up green alternatives to regular concrete and asphalt paving. See arroyesco.org and forsea.org  for more ideas.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars (www.jewishecoseminars.com), which engages and educates the Jewish community through inspiring programs linking Israel, the environment, and Jewish values. This article is adapted from Canfei Nesharim's Eitz Chaim Hee series of environment-focused commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, for which he served as editor

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