Isaiah in Detroit: "Hey, All That Are Thirsty, Come for Water"

Between logistics, music, marketing, studying, planning, writing and reflecting, I’ve spent the better part of the last few weeks in what I call a “High Holiday black hole”. Not very long before RH I peeled myself away from my desk, tried to look somewhat professional, and drove out to West Bloomfield. Rabbi Silverman had asked me to sit on a beit din, to serve as one of three judges in a conversion. I cursed her the whole way there, and when I arrived I cursed her to her face. “Seriously?? The week before Rosh Hashana?!”. She just smiled at me the knowing smile of a rabbi who has been doing this longer... I was quickly chastened of course - as soon as the process began it was clear there was no more important place for me to be. To listen to a brilliant young woman share why she is choosing our meshuga people - to listen to her share how Judaism brought her joy and connectedness and deepened her commitment to justice… what an incredible privilege. I sat outside the doors of the mikvah, the ritual bath, listening to the sounds of the newest Member of the Tribe dunking and blessing - and I was deeply honored to be present to shout mazel tov.

The mikvah is a ritual bath which marks important transitions like childbirth, menstruation cycles, and conversion, and prepares for High Holidays, or other life cycle events. The mikvah forms the ritual precursor to the central Christian ritual of baptism and Islamic ritual ablution. Archaeologists have found mikvaot dating from over 2000 years ago in Palestine-Israel and beyond.

The first time I used the Mikvah was just before my rabbinic ordination. We all sat in the courtyard just outside the doors of the bath singing for what must have been hours as each of our classmates, who we had been through so much with, took their turn to immerse. The tears came as soon as I entered the dressing room - before I entered the bath. I still remember, from the other side of the wall, the voices of my classmates singing Olam Hesed Yibaneh ya nay nay nay ya na nay nay We Will Build This World with Love....


Rachel Adler says:

The mikveh simulates the original living water, the primal sea from which all life comes, the womb of the world, the amniotic tide on which the unborn child is rocked. To be reborn, one must reenter this womb and “drown” in living water. We enter the mikveh naked, as an infant enters the world.

Since that first experience I have mikvahed a few times in the Detroit River off Belle Isle - most notably the Friday before Justin and my chuppah. Again the mikveh was there in the liminal space -- marking the transitional moment, the passage from one reality to another, facilitating movement through state. As you can imagine the water was not warm, and I screamed the blessing.

Water is a key element in Jewish ritual life. In addition to mikvah, think of the various forms of ritual handwashing, of taharah - the washing of the body before burial, and the more modern tradition of Miriam’s cup at the seder table. Throughout history and up until today, Jews make meaning and mark sacred time with water. And then there is our ancient text. Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone writes:

One could go back to any Torah portion and find connections to water, wells, or rain. In Breisheet, one of the few things that precede Creation is the primordial water, called tehom, or the Abyss. Avraham digs wells. Jacob crosses rivers and uncovers a well. Joseph saves Egypt from a lack of water. B’nai Israel are enslaved to make mud-based bricks, and pass through the Sea of Reeds when their enslavement comes to an end. During the years of wandering, water is a major issue, since it is a scarce and precious resource in a desert. One could read the entire Torah as a narrative centered on water.”

Not only are the 5 Books of Moses about water, but the rabbis take it a step further. The rabbis of the Talmud assert  Ein Mayim Elah Torah - there is no water, rather Torah! That is to say, anytime you see the word “water”, read “Torah” - water is a metaphor for Torah, which is much more than the 5 books.  Torah isn't even just the process of Jewish learning. It is the presence of wisdom in our world at large, it is everything worth studying and learning, which includes our lived experiences and anything and anyone who we learn from.

The rabbis riff on this theme: just as water is forever-living, Just as water comes from the heavens, Just as the water has many voices, Just as water restores the soul…. So too, Torah. The 3rd century book of commentary known as Sifre Devarim says:

Just as water is always free, so, too, are words of Torah always free, as is said [in Isaiah], “Hey, all that are thirsty, come for water [...](Isaiah 55:1). Just as water is priceless, so, too, are words of Torah priceless, as is said [in Proverbs], “It is more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 3:15).

Just as water is always free, the rabbis say, just as water is always free… are they naive? Idealistic? Did the rabbis imagine a world in which water would always be free, un-commodified? What about Biblical disputes over wells, and Roman control over water systems in the Rabbinic era? Maybe they meant that water in natural bodies of water such as rivers and lakes would remain free. Perhaps they meant "free" not in a monetary sense, but rather free-flowing, abundant.

In any case, in the world we live in today, none of these assumptions are true.

In 1966 the Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton wrote:

“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain.”

Indeed Merton’s words were prescient - water has become a commodified resource, withheld from poor people, privatized by corporations, and at risk of contamination by pipelines and oil spills. Water does not flow free anymore, neither monetarily, nor in its own flow of abundance. From Standing Rock to Detroit, water is being threatened.

When preparing to move to Detroit I had a sense that I was going to a place where core questions about the future of civilization are being asked.

And that very summer, they started shutting the water off.

One year later, the poisoning of the people of Flint through their water was exposed.

Welcome to Michigan! Where democracy is just one of a few options, where the United Nations has to intervene, and where an oil-industry lobbyist heads the Department of Environmental Quality....

Tomorrow Jews around the world will hear the words of Isaiah, the text that is more beloved to me than any other. (58:6)

This is the fast I want:

unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude.

Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken.

Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home.

When you see the naked, clothe them.

All people are your kin: do not ignore them."

If Isaiah were in Detroit today he certainly would have reprised those famous verses, as well as the one that undergirds the rabbis theology of water: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, Let the one who has no money, come… (Is. 55:1). He would also repeat: “When the poor and needy seek water, I will open the rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. (Is. 41: 17-18)”

We have our own Isaiahs here in Detroit. The Monica Lewis-Patricks, the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermans, the Deborah Taylors, the Melissa Mays, and zichrona livracha, the Charity Hicks’s. The day that Rev. Jim Perkinson stood with 9 other community and faith leaders obstructing the path of the Homrich trucks en route to perpetrate water shutoffs, he wrote:

"[...] does a cry of thirst penetrate and enjoin response? [...] Do we secretly muse, “Folk should pay their way . . . or pay the consequences” and ourselves refuse to ask more deeply, “Why do I have and ‘those people’ do not?” There is an answer to that question, and it does not leave any of us innocent. Thirst is a shared condition. And none of us created the water it craves."

Last summer, I was invited to give a blessing at the start of the Detroit to Flint Water Justice Journey.  A crowd gathered at the Spirit of Detroit statue downtown. I offered the Talmudic  story of Honi HaM’agel, Honi the Circle-Maker. One winter, the rains did not come, leaving the people thirsty and hungry. Honi drew a circle around himself, declaring he would not move until God sent the rain. And so God did. I told the walkers that the faith community walked with them, that we will draw a circle and refuse to be moved until all of Michigan has access to clean, affordable water.

What would that actually look like? It will start with education. Maybe volunteering for the hotline, or for weekly water delivery to affected homes. It will most certainly involve making our voices heard to our lawmakers and leaders. And for some of us in this room, it will mean babysitting or providing legal representation when others of us have placed our bodies in the path of the trucks.

I’ve wondered about the parallel the rabbis draw between water and Torah -- which is meant to sanctify which? Back in the day, I would imagine that reverence for water was such that the comparison was designed to sanctify Torah. Now? Perhaps we need it just as much, but in the opposite direction: can linking the element of water with our tradition, which we know to be holy, cause us to see water as sacred? And thus see the poisoning of water, the abuse of its control, as a Hilul Hashem - a crime against humanity and a crime against God.

Isaiah tells us:

קְרָא בְגָרוֹן אַל-תַּחְשֹׂךְ, כַּשּׁוֹפָר הָרֵם קוֹלֶךָ

"Cry out, don't hold back. Raise your voice like a shofar!” (58:1)

This year may we honor Judaism by honoring water, may we, together other faith communities, folks impacted by the shut-offs, and community organizations draw a circle and refuse to be moved until Isaiah’s vision is realized:

“Then the injured one will skip like a gazelle and the tongue of the silent will sing glad song. For water will have broken out in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The scorched place will become a pond and the parched place–springs of water.”

I hope you will join me as we work towards that vision. As we venture into the mikvah, dipping our toes in, not knowing what sort of transformation lie on the other side, may we hear the sounds of our friends, our family, our community urging us forward in song: Olam Hesed Yibaneh…...


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