Tuesday, 18 Oct 2011

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

The county of Sussex in which I was born 55 years ago, apart from being one of the most beautiful in England, is watered by four rivers: the Arun, the Adur, the Ouse and the Cuckmere. The latter is especially fine, opening out as it does into a broad estuary which cuts through chalk cliffs on its way to the Channel near Lewes. As rivers go, these four are small, but they set me to thinking about other rivers that I have seen in my homeland and in other parts of the world; of English rivers I would have to single out the Test in Hampshire, one of the best places to see and catch trout in the country, and the Thames in its upper reaches in the Cotswolds.

Abroad, I have fond memories of trips down the Rhine in Germany, wine bibbing by the Loire in France, and swimming in the river Gambia in Africa at a point where it is so wide it looks like the sea itself. Then there is the Tiber in Rome threading its way through so much history, the St Lawrence in Canada crashing over Niagara Falls, the Hudson in New York surrounded by a man-made jungle, and the Liffey in Dublin. Each one has a special quality unique to itself, an attraction, or wonder, or majesty which makes it unforgettable.

This Shabbat we formally commence the reading of the Torah with the first portion of the book of Genesis, Bereyshit. It tells the story of the Creation of the Universe and of our world within that Universe, and it then proceeds to describe the creation of life on earth. It is a fascinating Sidra on many levels: first, because it is clear that more than one version of the creation story is embodied within it, and with editing that leaves much to be desired in some places; second, because it has been a cause of so much controversy between the proponents of its version of the development of life and the theories of those who follow more scientific theories of evolution; third, because of its great truths, such as the fact that we are custodians of the world rather than its owners, or that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, or that women should never trust a smooth-talking snake; and fourth, because it speaks of the passion that governs human relationships which can so easily turn very sour.

In Genesis, chapter 2, apart from hearing one of the versions of the creation of Man, we also hear about the river that rose in Eden to water the garden and which then divided into four streams, identified by scholars as the great rivers of the White and Blue Nile, which stretch from the African rift down to the Mediterranean, and the Tigris and Euphrates, which cut through Iran and Iraq, and which were one of the cradles of ancient civilization.

This early mention of water, and of significant rivers at the core of the place that is later identified with Paradise, seems to suggest to us that from the first water has been recognized as the vital commodity that it undoubtedly is. Everything that lives needs water in one form or another to survive and without it, people and animals, plants and trees, insects and birds perish.

Now we know that the rivers alluded to in the portion of Bereyshit are not the only great rivers in the world but are just those that were known to the writers of ancient times; it is, however, true that the first two are intimately connected with the land from which scientists believe human beings first evolved from apes, and the latter two with the great civilizations like Nuzi, Mari, Sumer and Ur, which represent some of the very first attempts by men and women to create an ordered and orderly society.

Water retains its importance today, although it is an item that we take totally for granted, never doubting for a moment that when we turn on the tap it will gush with a clear liquid in which we can at least wash ourselves or our clothes even if we do not feel quite so confident as once we did about drinking it. But there are parts of the world where such confidence is not even a dream, and where it is certainly unlikely ever to become a reality.

In Africa, home of two of the great biblical rivers, there are regularly terrible droughts, the long-term implications of which are almost impossible to predict, and with these droughts inevitably comes famine on an unprecedented scale, usually, as now, at its worst in the Horn of Africa. The causes of these natural disasters may be principally climactic, but an honest person would be forced to acknowledge that in many ways they have also been created by human folly.

In countries where water is already hard to come by, civil wars that tear the heart out of a nation, destroy its infrastructure and make anything other than subsistence living almost impossible, do not help to create the sort of stability where such essential things as a sound water supply and good irrigation systems are de rigeur. In nations where the population growth is uncontrolled and where corruption is the order of the day, essential supplies are concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, and the vast majority usually living outside the major cities cry aloud for help to leaders who are immune to anything other than the lining of their own pockets.

In addition, we smug and self-satisfied inhabitants of the industrialized West must remember that our factories have played a large part in pumping enormous quantities of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere which, if they have not actually created the climactic conditions from which Africa regularly suffers, have certainly made the situation much worse and will likely make it worse still in the future.

According to the book of Genesis water is one of the necessities of life, a gift of God without which we cannot survive. It is the source of so much more than the sum of the substances of which it is composed: without it society as a whole collapses and life is extinguished. It is, therefore, a commodity which we have a duty to preserve and further, to make as readily available as possible to all human beings, so that, fortified by its benefits, they may work towards the creation of a society where all will enjoy peace and stability, food and growth; a society based on justice, both natural and God-given, whose not so indirect link with water was first enunciated by the prophet Amos (5:24) who said:

Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
October 2011


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.