Parashat Chukkat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Israelites, 40 years into their journey through the desert, are yet again desperate for water. In their distress, their fears drive them to reactive, rather than rational behaviors. They approach Moses, looking to pick a fight.
“Why have you brought Adonai’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20: 4-5)
Lack of access to water, the most basic need for survival, water, the Israelites yet again question why they have been led out of Egypt. At that moment, even slavery seemed better than this fate. And this is the generation born in the desert!
The uncertainty around access to water leads to stress—or as the text describes in Moses and Aaron’s case, “fall[ing] on their faces” (Numbers 20: 6). Emotions elevate and become toxic: when God instructs Moses to speak to a rock to draw water, Moses violently strikes it instead. Even after the Israelites have moved on, the bitterness of this episode endures and the place is immortalized as “Mei Meribah,” waters of strife (Numbers 20:13).
Access to water is escalating as a contemporary global issue. The agendas of industry and government around maintaining access to and control over natural resources like land and water seriously impact communities – especially poorer communities. They face survival issues around the most basic needs, such as food and shelter, maintaining their sources of livelihood and preserving their cultural heritage and sense of community.
With so much at stake, worries lead to disagreement, conflict and even violence—both within community and between community members and their leaders. Such conflict can fracture and render a community ‘s efforts to be futile. This, when they need to advocate for rights to the land and resources and manage the changes taking place on its own terms. Such collaboration requires good communication.
As we witness among the Israelites in the desert, when communication breaks down, communities break down. Sound familiar in today’s national climate?
Danya Rockowitz, writing for American Jewish World Service (https://ajws.org/who-we-are/our-team/staff/dahlia-rockowitz/), offers guidelines for facilitating open dialogue before problems emerge. This trust-building dialogue can help community members:
- Work their way around internal conflict as stress rises
- Create a community protocol for communication & action that:
- Addresses changes happening on their land and to their environment.
- Captures the community’s history and roots
- Set goals, rules and procedures for moving forward by articulating the community’s values, preserving traditional knowledge and laying out the community’s development priorities for the future.
When a community is on the same page, there is less in-fighting. Working together puts the community in a position of strength to collaborate and negotiate with outside actors like governments, land developers or NGOs. To make their case, they need to draw on national and international laws to justify and reinforce the community’s demands that governments and developers respect their access to resources. And, they need to have a say in the management of these resources. This ideally comes with the guarantee communities can benefit from them in the years to come.
Shaping this kind of protocol for dialogue can be a powerful tool for fostering cooperation. Buy-in across the community and for advocacy directed at outside actors affects the change they need to do more than survive. They need to thrive.
In contrast to this inclusive approach, the Israelites involved in the conflict at Mei Meribah pay a terrible price for their divisive behavior. For hitting the rock, Moses and Aaron are denied entrance into the land of Israel. For provoking Moses, the people must part with their long-time leader when they need him the most.
This Shabbat, keep in mind the escalating disputes around the globe sparked by lack of access to natural resources. Communities and countries are engaging in an ongoing struggle for survival that is based upon direct access to water and land. Fear can lead to hostility. This may incite those in power to tamp down further on human rights.
Shabbat is a day for “remembering” with amazement, humility and gratitude the beautiful world that has been given to our care. Week after week we celebrate this gift. The question is: What is our role in preserving human life and dignity by ensuring that all people have access to its abundance of resources?
May you and yours be blessed with an abundance of joy and an overflowing of love.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
9 Tammuz 5776/ 15 July 2016