Be Watchful for our Wellsprings and Ourselves

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(The Oasis of Ein Gedi in the Judean Desert near Masada and the Dead Sea)

In the Torah this week, another pair of our forebears come together through a story that begins at a well. (Genesis 29)

Wells have mystical significance in our tradition.

It is easy to understand how, in the landscape of our ancestors, wells and springs were natural symbols of divine providence. For anyone who has ever visited an oasis - like Ein Gedi, its cascading rivulets and freshwater pools, its acacias and its jujube plants, its ibexes, hyrax badgers, and leopards a shocking spot of life so close to parched Masada and the Dead Sea - a sense of what words like 'miracle' and 'blessing' meant to our forebears, and a sense of how they felt the hand of the Divine in their own lives, deepens.

Convenient as our surroundings are today, and less beset (at least here in the West) by the elementary peril of thirst, we lose something in this world of taps and faucets. Water becomes something more like gasoline - fuel from a mechanized pump dispensed into containers on demand. We don't have to search for it (not far, anyhow). We tend far less to dance around it.

It becomes harder to experience immediately for ourselves how the well, for our ancestors can have been - as the Zohar, the central text of high medieval Jewish mysticism sees it - the very actuality of imminent divinity nourishing the sacred apple-orchard of this world (e.g. Zohar Vayetze, I: 151b-152a).

In the message to Congress accompanying his Reorganization Plan No. 3 of July 1970, the Executive Order that established the Environmental Protection Agency, President Richard Nixon wrote:

"As concern with the condition of our physical environment has intensified, it has become increasingly clear that we need to know more about the total environment - land, water and air. It also has become increasingly clear that only by reorganizing our Federal efforts can we develop that knowledge, and effectively ensure the protection, development and enhancement of the total environment itself."

Good government - that is to say - includes well-informed, strong stewardship and protection of the natural resources that sustain the people. This is, in a very real sense, a mitzvah, the human understanding and enactment of a sacred duty.

What exactly is the duty?

As our Torah says, in imperative terms: "For your own selves' sake, be very watchful" (Deuteronomy 4:15) - words our rabbinic tradition has, since ancient times, lifted out of the context of Sinai and revelation to take as a divine admonition about safeguarding human health and wellbeing and avoiding preventable perils. We see the principle invoked in Jewish orthodoxy in our own times to urge - as imperatives of Torah law - vaccination, seatbelts, cessation of smoking.

As the President put it back in 1970: "The Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man."

Note that the term, as far back as 1970, was "rescue."

Healthy wellsprings make for healthy community - as the Zoahr envisions it, "all the throngs and the holy companies, all of whom drink and refresh themselves from the well," by which, in its own distinctive and holy imaginings, the Zohar means the earthly people here below, refreshed by the outpouring of divine beneficence so as to be able to celebrate in league with the host of heaven, the whole world manifesting and proclaiming divine abundance, blessing, love.

Even in ancient times, such blessing was understood as something for which we had to take responsibility.

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(students protesting air pollution in California in 1970)

May we be wise enough - and very vigilant enough - that, in our own times too, the following verse, which we read after our Torah portion this week, may be fulfilled:

"I will be to Israel like dew, he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like a Lebanon tree. His boughs shall spread out far, his beauty shall be like the olive tree's, his fragrance like that of Lebanon." (Hosea 14:4-5)