By Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz
Temple Shalom, Greenwich
In story, song and drama, rivers have played a unique role. Throughout literature, they have come to symbolize nature’s distinctive ability to shift from the serene to the catastrophic in the blink of an eye. And in mythology, rivers have even served as the transition point between life and death.
Growing up fascinated with Israel, I always imagined the immense and legendary power of the Jordan River. What other river has captured the American literary and lyrical imagination in such a powerful way for so many generations?
Having been influenced as a child by the legendary lyrics “I’m going to lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside,” “Jordan deep and Jordan wide,” and “Swing low, sweet chariot,” I thought the Jordan River would be grander than the Mississippi, the Nile, and the Amazon put together. So when I finally saw the Jordan River for the first time at the age of 17, I was extremely disappointed. In some places, the Jordan only spans 20 yards across, and the deepest part of the river is only 17 feet. And yet, for as physically small as the Jordan River runs, it is the major water source for Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Consequently, many fear that the next great war – God forbid – will be fought over water supply more than any other challenging political agenda items.
In Israel, a common note of Israeli conversation is how much rain has fallen, and how deep the Jordan River is running. Every Israeli understands the absolute need for the life-affirming, thirst-quenching necessity that the Jordan River provides, both for drinking water and for crucial agricultural needs. The importance of the Jordan River – physical appearances aside – is in fact the great power I imagined as a child.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jordan River is referenced as the source of “fertility for the land of Israel.” The Patriarch Jacob is renamed Israel at the Jordan, Joshua crosses the Jordan to reclaim Israel after our Exodus finally comes to a conclusion, and the prophets Elijah and Elisha commonly brought the Israelites who needed their care to be healed in the Jordan River’s life-waters. In Christianity, the Jordan was the site where Jesus was baptized. So the waters of the Jordan are sacred to Judaism and Christianity, as well as Islam, which includes the Hebrew Testament and Christian Testament as part of their own Islamic Biblical canon.
Even before Israel was formally re-created and declared a democratic state in 1948, the new modern development of the Jordan River was having a negative impact on water supply. Before modern interference, a minimum of 1300 million cubic meters of water flowed from the Jordan River into the Sea of Galilee. Today, this amount is drastically reduced, and more than 80 percent of the Jordan is now diverted before feeding into the Dead Sea. This diversion is causing immense ecological damage.
Israel has explored its water options with desalinization efforts, and there are plans for trying to save the Dead Sea, through the idea of piping in waters from the Red Sea and/or the Mediterranean now being considered. Geologists have noted that approximately 120,000 years ago, the Dead Sea in fact dried up, and without human interference, water was returned to the site a mere 85,000 years later. While this timeline might work well for God’s immortal presence in the world, I think we need to figure out a way to help.
I hope that you will join me in welcoming Jewish National Fund CEO Russell Robinson to our community next Jan. 12 at 7 p.m., when he will discuss the topic “Oil and Water: The Two Hottest Commodities in the Middle East.” His crucial perspective on the crisis of natural resources in our Jewish homeland will offer an outlook on Israel’s future, and what is being done about the water situation there. I am sure that you won’t want to miss this special and important evening about Israel’s future, and to learn more about ways we can support Israel during this crisis at hand.
With prayers for our Holy Land, may she be blessed with abundance in this secular New Year yet to come.