Parashat Vayera 5782 - Water is Life, and Life is Love

Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, there is no shortage of water - quite the opposite at times, as communities here have faced destructive flooding twice in the last few months. However, water scarcity impacts over 2 billion humans throughout the world. It is a global crisis that not only impacts public health, but also regional politics and armed conflict. The fight over water is very real because, simply put, water is life.

In Parashat Vayera, sandwiched between the traumatic tales of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael and the binding of Yitzhak by the hand of his father, is a little vignette in which Avraham protects access to a well of water from a neighboring Philistine general and his troops. Overshadowed by more dramatic narrative within this particular Torah portion, hidden within the nuanced language of this short story is an incredible offering of wisdom that just well may influence how we as individuals and communities might learn to address the water shortage crises and other climate catastrophes.

The Torah states:

וְהוֹכִ֥חַ אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־אֲבִימֶ֑לֶךְ עַל־אֹדוֹת֙ בְּאֵ֣ר הַמַּ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּזְל֖וּ עַבְדֵ֥י אֲבִימֶֽלֶךְ׃
Then Avraham rebuked Avimelekh for the well of water which was stolen by the servants of Avimelekh.

In this verse, there are only two verbs - and as is so often the case (in Torah and in life) it is actions which matter most. It is the verbs which give us a deeper sense of what is actually going on here in this story.

First, the concept of rebuke in the Jewish tradition is worth unpacking. According to Jewish law, when one has the ability to preempt or respond to immoral behavior one has the obligation to do so by issuing an explicit, firm, and compassionate rebuke. One is expected to name the action that is seen as immoral, to express the consequences of that action, and to issue a moral call to higher values. Skilled rebuke is a rare commodity, and is so much more important in a global culture that more and more shies away from legitimate debate. The biggest challenge with rebuking another person is that the rebuke itself cannot be so damning or aggressive that it leads the one issuing rebuke to themselves engage in immortal behavior that requires rebuking; it is a sensitive line to walk.

Another important nuance to understand is the nuance of the distinction in Hebrew between stealing in broad daylight and stealing under concealment - the prior is viewed as much more severe because it is without shame or conspiracy; just unbridled immorality. In Hebrew, the distinction between these types of stealing are treated with two different words. In the case of this verse, the word implies stolen in broad daylight - the act deemed at an even greater level of immorality. So we learn two things about this episode from these two verbs: 1) Avraham was engaging in a reaction to immoral behavior - not so different than when he confronted God about the destruction of S'dom and 'Ammorah; and 2) that the servants of Avimelekh stole in broad the well daylight, without shame.

Why is any of this significant? Looking back a few chapters, Avraham confronts God regarding the destruction of S'dom and 'Ammorah. The text itself is clear, and the tradition of Jewish commentary and interpretation on the matter is nearly unanimous - the immorality of S'dom was apathy. The Mishnah teaches:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם. הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, זוֹ מִדָּה בֵינוֹנִית. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, זוֹ מִדַּת סְדוֹם. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, עַם הָאָרֶץ. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, חָסִיד. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, רָשָׁע:
There are four human characteristics: One who says, 'What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours,' this is an average characteristic; some say it is the characteristic of S'dom. 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine,' an ignorant person. What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours, a pious person. What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine, an evil person.

It is worth noting that Avraham intercedes with God to try to prevent the destruction of S'dom, but never seeks to change the behavior of the people. Again, the nature of rebuke is such that if the rebuke will fall on deaf ears, then that rebuke is abusive and does not serve its purpose. The culture of apathy cultivated in S'dom was such that individuals could not see outside their own desires and in doing so created a culture of abuse. So when God informed Avraham of the intention to destroy the city, Avraham's response is to intervene with God but not the people. Despite this intervention, the cities and the people are destroyed.

Yet, later, when interceding to protect his water access, Avraham intercedes directly with the source of challenge. In doing so, Avraham is able to engage in direct relationship with the source of the problem because of the understanding that when leveraged well, rebuke can create incredible change. The well is liberated and Avraham's access to water, and therefore life, is maintained - and this creates, in this particular narrative, the space for love to grow.

But what do we do when throughout the world corporations and utilities are regularly seizing water sources from indigenous peoples? How do we confront the ways in which apathy in the world has emboldened and enabled destructive capitalism to cause abuse and harm in the lived lives of vulnerable people throughout the world? Were it to be so easy as to just say to the corporate powers and the political mechanisms that support them, "hey, that's not nice, you should stop!" But, of course, that is not our reality.

What is the appropriate response to such wanton destruction and disregard for life and wellness? Do we protest? Do we boycott? Do we fight? Looking at the distinct reactions of Avraham in the interceding first with God - the source of the judgment but not the source of the problem - and later learning to intervene directly with the source of the problem in regards to the well, we have a model of how to engage with seemingly insurmountable challenges like the climate crises that abound and the challenge with access to the most basic human need - clean, fresh water.

Bringing the fight to the politicians and the corporations that are the source of the abuse will yield little to no result. Likewise, ignoring the abuse will certainly not accomplish lasting change. Rather, in addition to working on policy and regulation, of ensuring land and resource rights, we also must address the cultural foundations of apathy. It becomes our responsibility to maintain resolve in creating cultures that support peoples' needs. It is each of our responsibility as individuals to build community that is resilient enough to weather the momentary challenges and recognizes that the end goal is not the removal of abuse, but healing.

Our natural resources have become commodities used to leverage and build wealth. Our notions of private property and ownership have created a dynamic wherein when one has another does not - it is what the Mishnah names as the "characteristic of S'dom," and one which Jewish tradition teaches needs to be eradicated from our sense of self and purged from our communities and cultures in order to ensure that every being has access to the most basic need of all - love.

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