Water, Blessing, and Puerto Rico


I’m back, and here’s my Yom Kippur sermon—sadly, still relevant.

I’ve been thinking about water a lot this Yom Tov season—and not just because a part of me really wishes I could have some now. It all started when I decided to level up on my practice of gratitude. We learn in Menachot 43b that, “Rabbi Meir used to say, חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום שנאמר A person must make one hundred (meal) blessings each day, as it is stated (דברים י, יב) ועתה ישראל מה ה’ אלהיך שואל מעמך (Deuteronomy 10:12), “And now Israel, what ( mah) does HaShem, your God, ask of you.”

This comes down to a blessing about once every 10 minutes that a person is awake. (If one prays the daily liturgy, the custom almost takes care of itself—although today it’s much harder since we don’t eat or drink or smell nice spices until we make Havdalah and it becomes another day.)

Even if one doesn’t daven every day, the idea here is to be awake and aware—to appreciate every bite of food one eats and every gorgeous sunset and every exceptionally beautiful sight—including people: ברוך…שככה לו בעולמו (Blessed is the One who enlivens creation with such beauty) and new wine Baruch Atah Adonai HaTov VeHaMeitiv (Blessed is the One who is good and does good) beginning with conscious gratitude in the morning for getting to wake up: מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ (thank You for returning my soul to life).

But the blessing for water is the catchall blessing for food when we are not sure if it’s grain or fruit or some other kind of sustenance for which there is a specific blessing. For water, we just usually say בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהַכֹּל נִהְיָה בִּדְבָרוֹ., Baruch Atah H’ our God, Sovereign of the Universe by whose word everything is.  (If you come to our synagogue on Shabbos, you might be familiar with that one, because it’s the blessing over whiskey, the one that many of us make for our Kiddush when we get our single malt on.)

Lumping water in with ha col (everything or, in this context, all the rest) began to bother me. Water is life. The average adult body is more than half water. We might live for 3 weeks without food, but 3 days without water could be fatal. And, not to torment you on Yom Kippur, that feeling of slaking our thirst with water—and if we hold out until break fast, how wonderful it will be to finally feel that relief—goes way beyond ha col, the everything else.

Thank God for the internet. I consulted the Jewish Facebook hivemind, and guess what? Mishnah Berachot 6:8 gives us an opinion from Rabbi Tarfon according to which we bless on drinking water: בורא נפשות רבות, Baruch…boreh neshamot rabot. Blessed be the One who creates many souls. The version in the Gemara, Berachot 45 is resonates even more acutely for us right now: רבי טרפון אומר בורא נפשות רבות וחסרונן: Blessed be the Holy One who creates many souls and their needs—or more pointedly, their lacks, their deficiencies. This, by the way, is different from the ruling of the great Rabbi Akiba who says that we bless ha col (We’ll get back to him). About that, “Rava bar Rav Ḥanan said to Abaye, and some say to Rav Yosef: What is the halakha in this dispute? He said to him: Go out and observe what the people are doing and act accordingly.” I suggest that our community becomes a place where people say Boreh neshamot rabot v’hisronan.

Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, the 18th Century author of Tiferes Yisrael a commentary on the Mishnah, writes in the section called Yachin that we are actually blessing on the thirst being quenched rather than on the water. I love this take on Rabbi Tarfon’s blessing, because it suggests that we bless having needs—we bless on our very vulnerability. These holy days—and this year especially—impel us to reflect on the fragility, and precariousness of human life and, therefore, on its infinite worth. On what it means to be a contingent creature, always possessed of imperfect knowledge and imperfect capacity—and therefore always capable to do better, to grow and change. Our very dependence—on one another, on creation, on the water the Creator put on this earth—is the ground for our goodness. It conditions the ways we can be present for one another and the other creatures. As the great 20th Century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas teaches, “The word of God speaks through the glory of the face,” that is, the naked face of another person. In that face, we find a trace of her Creator and also a summons for us to choose our response to human vulnerability, the choice to harm or help—and a reminder of our own susceptibility, our own potential need. Why does the crying of a child provoke a response to us that short circuits any rational consideration of our self-interest in helping? We have all been that child and know in our guts how she feels.

Generosity then, and solidarity, come from self-awareness and humility. Paradoxically, it’s this awareness of vulnerability which strengthens our courage to risk giving up a bit of what we have, because we know in our bodies how it feels to be without.

Generosity, solidarity, water.  So, now let’s talk about Puerto Rico, that island commonwealth of the United States whose residents are U.S. citizens. An island devastated by two hurricanes that knocked out its power grid, flattened its buildings, overcame its hospitals—and fouled its water. First the island was flooded with more water than it could stand and now people there don’t have enough to drink. This happened over a week ago, and the death toll will still rise, because people who survived the storm are dying of neglect now.

How long can a person survive? Three weeks without food, three days without water. That’s assuming they are not sick or injured and feverish or just very young or old and frail. Yesterday (the day before Kol Nidrei), the mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulín Cruz said, “”I will do what I never thought I was going to do. I am begging, begging anyone who can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency.” Mayor Cruz responded to Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s comments who called the federal administration’s response to the devastation “a good news story.” Said Mayor Cruz, “When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story… We are going to see something close to a genocide if we don’t get more help.”

Chevre, we are responsible. This is our government, these are fellow Americans. Last night I suggested that, in addition to calling for the mobilization of our military, we also donate personally to help. But what are we to do about the donated goods that are piling up undelivered to the people who need them because the roads are gone?

I confess myself to be baffled. We can drop special forces into the most hostile impassable territory in the world, we can send a drone to kill somebody watching TV in his house, and we can’t get needed supplies off the docks and out to the villages where the roads have been destroyed? Where is our military when the lives, let alone the security, of American citizens are in terrible danger? (And these are American citizens who were annexed into that condition whether they wanted to be or not by the US Congress 100 years ago.)

If the people of Wisconsin or Oklahoma—or California—had been struck by a disaster that leveled most of their territory, would the response look like this? (Well, maybe if it were California it might—we haven’t forgotten Katrina and the fate of New Orleans.) Do some Americans count for more than others? Why did it take so long to suspend the Jones Act that prohibits foreign ships from offloading in Puerto Rico? Why were military ships, planes, and personnel sent home from the Bahamas even though the hurricane was on its way? Has someone confused Spanish speaking Americans with the people they want to build a wall to keep out?

Forgive me for veering in the direction, on our holy day, of what might be called politics. To me this is far beyond politics, it is a matter of human rights, human decency and human dignity—what Jews call cavod  ha briot—the dignity of the created ones.

Again—we, the human beings, were made to be vulnerable to thirst and heat and cold. We were made to be interdependent with one another, to thrive in networks of relationship, communities of obligation. This understanding of the human is the Jewish way. To do something about that understanding is also the Jewish way.

The same Rabbi Tarfon who taught our water blessing is also quoted famously in Pirkei Avot 3:16 to teach, “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but you are not free to neglect it.” Rabbi Tarfon may be an odd guy to rely on in this context—he was associated with the House of Shammai, those strict rabbis against whom the halacha goes in almost every case. He argued with the great Rabbi Akiba, one of our most brilliant teachers. Of course, respecting someone enough to argue with them was a great sign of favor for the rabbis.

One lesson that Akiba taught Tarfon was about generosity. Rabbi Tarfon was very rich. Rabbi Akiba, who was born a shepherd, once said to him: “Would you like me to buy some properties as your agent?” Rabbi Tarfon gave him four thousand gold coins. Rabbi Akiba gave that money to poor Torah scholars. When Rabbi Tarfon met Rabbi Akiba later, he asked to see the properties that Rabbi Akiba was to have bought for him. Rabbi Akiba took him by the hand and led him into the Beth HaMidrash where the scholars were making Torah. Rabbi Akiba reciting Psalms from the beginning until he reached Psalm 112:9: “He gives freely to the poor; his beneficence lasts forever.” Rabbi Tarfon arose and kissed Rabbi Akiba on his head and exclaimed: “My teacher in wisdom and my leader in conduct.”

Rabbi Tarfon learned that in responding to those who—currently—have less than we do, we build an everlasting legacy. We hear that same message in today’s haftarah from Isaiah: “This [says God] is the fast I desire: To unlock chains of wickedness…To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry.” That indicates we should indeed accept accountability, as members of polities, for how our institutions behave. But then the text continues: “And not to desert your own flesh and blood.”

So we are counseled to be caring and generous with the widow, orphan, and stranger—and with the people in our household, those closest to us. We are told to feed the hungry and also to care for the soul-hunger, the need for connection of our families and friends.

For this to be possible, returning now to the demands of this day and this moment, we cannot ignore the hunger within our own souls. Our spirits are hungry for meaning, for the assurance that it does indeed matter what we do, whether we are wealthy like Rabbi Tarfon or not, whether we are the ones who can give or the ones who need to receive. Most often we are both.

Today we dive deep. We look at the times in which we have failed to be generous—and we look at how very much we ourselves need. We are the strong and we are the weak. As we chant the Vidui, the Ashamnu, the Al Chet (the confessions) again and again, we make ourselves see where refusing to admit our weaknesses can lead us. In trying to be hard, we make ourselves brittle, and we break. Can we be strong enough to embrace vulnerability? Do we have the guts to admit our faults and misdeeds, trusting that, with support, we can and will do better?

None of us could finish the work by ourselves. And none of us is at liberty to pretend it doesn’t need to be done.

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