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Reflections on Water

by | Feb 19, 2004

There is a hint in the Torah concerning the importance of the proper treatment of water resources in the imagery of the well, found in three of the stories of our patriarchs.

Eliezer finds a wife for Isaac at a well. Jacob first meets the woman that he loves at the same well. In addition, Moses, too, finds his eventual spouse at a well. Although the three stories are on the surface similar, the differences between the stories are the deeper elements of our subject.

In the first story, Eliezer comes to a well that is completely open for anyone and everyone to use. In fact, the test that he sets up to tell him who will be the eventual wife of Isaac relates to the well. We recall that Eliezer made as the test to see which woman G-d had chosen for Isaac, how the young girls would respond to his request for water. The girl who was willing to give water to him and to his camels (an arduous task), was the one most spiritually fit to be the daughter-in-law of Abraham. In this first case, then, there were no restrictions to the well. Anybody could get to the water.

By the time Jacob comes to the well, things have changed. The Torah describes how the well is now covered over by a huge stone. The shepherds need to gather to roll the stone off so that they can water the sheep. It is apparent here that over time the society has not conserved its water resources. They no longer are able to have the “open well” policy that they once had, and as a result, are now forced into strict and uncomfortable conservation.

Jacob makes a comment that indicates the difficulties that such a circumstance creates. He points out that the shepherds are gathering in the middle of the day, at a time when they would normally be pasturing the flock. The result is that they are losing productivity and that the general quality of life in the society is going down.

When we get to the time of Moses, things are even worse. When Moses comes to the well, he encounters the daughters of Jethro, one of whom would eventually be his wife. However, the daughters of Jethro are being molested by a group of shepherds. Moses saves them from these shepherds and waters their flock.

There is a remarkable comment that the Torah makes at this point. When the daughters reach home, Jethro inquires as to why they have arrived so early on this day. The answer they give is that an Egyptian man (Moses) saved them from the shepherds. Apparently, this molestation by the shepherds was a daily event. In fact, Jethro’s family had it figured into their daily schedule. When Moses put a stop to it, it meant that the daughters could come home earlier, and so the daily schedule was thrown off. This evoked their father’s question.

What a terribly painful comment to hear about any society, that a group of woman need to factor molestation by a group of uncouth and immoral shepherds into their daily time schedule. However, one might well suggest that this was the next logical step. When resources become scarce and people have to struggle for their basic existence, when the quality of life goes down and people are dealing with real concern about their bare necessities, the tendency towards crime and lack of respect for others increases.

The Torah in the story of the three wells shows us this process quite dramatically. The cautionary note it strikes may not be the obvious one, but the issue of water conservation makes it clear to our society that we must not act as if resources are unlimited. If we are not to follow the path illustrated by the three wells in the Torah, then it is imperative that we conserve now, so that life in the future does not become so much worse than what it is today.

This Tu b’Shevat, on the parsha of Beshalach, let us recall not only the importance of water to the health of every living thing, but also its implication. Let us consider the Torah’s message of water conservation, and do our part to conserve it: both for our quality of life, and for the quality of our society as a whole.

Rabbi Barry Freundel is the rabbi of Kesher Israel, The Georgetown Synagogue, in Washington D.C. He also serves as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Maryland, an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University, and a Consultant to the Ethics Review Board of the National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health.

This Tu b’Shevat marks the beginning of Canfei Nesharim (“on the wings of eagles”), a new committee of Orthodox Jews who have come together to educate the Orthodox community about the ideas, inherent in halacha, which today can be labelled as `environmental’ in nature.
Join the group’s periodic update and learning list by sending an email to
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