In the beginning, there was nothing. When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and void…Except, that’s not exactly true. Because there was something. There was darkness, and there was wind, and there was water. A lot of water. The wind of God sweeping over the water. First, God created light, separating light from darkness. Day from evening. And then, God took to creating an expanse between the waters. God separated the water from the water so there could be space in between. God made the expanse, the rakiya, the sky, so that the waters above were separated from the waters below. And then there was evening and there was morning, the second day (Genesis 1:1-8).

We learn in Genesis that even before creation, there was water. This same primordial water traveled with the Israelites in the wilderness in the form of the well. The Talmud teaches us that this well was given to the Israelites because of the merit of Miriam, and this same life-giving source of water disappeared with Miriam’s death (B. Taanit 9a). Just a verse after we learn of Miriam’s death in the Book of Numbers—“and Miriam died there”—we discover, “And there was no water for the congregation.” Miriam is the water. When she is gone, the wellspring is no more.

This is not the only instance in which we see women and water linked together. The daughter of Pharaoh first discovers baby Moses while walking by the water (Exodus 2:5-10). On account of the righteous women who stood by the water, drawing fish to feed and sustain their husbands, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt (B. Sotah 11b). And Miriam and the women sing together by the water, with timbrels and drums, at the parting of the Reed Sea (Exodus 15:20-21).

If we are to associate women with water, what does this characterization reflect about women? Or, in other words, what are the qualities of water, and how does that inform how we understand women?

Water precedes the creation of the world and it is the life source upon which we rely. We pray for it, we bless it, and when we don’t have it, we find our very existence threatened. And yet, water is also the source of destruction: “On this day, all the springs of the great deep were split and the windows of heavens opened up” (Genesis 7:11). Water almost wipes humanity off the earth, altering the world irrevocably

But water also resists being contained, limited to one definition or one aspect of being. In the tale of Ḥoni ha-Me’agel (B. Taanit 23a), the people find themselves for months without water. Desperate, they turn to Ḥoni and beg him to intercede, to pray to God on their behalf. Ḥoni prays for the rains to fall. At first a very gentle rain falls, droplets trickling down. But this rain proves insufficient, not what the people requested. Again Ḥoni prays, now asking for rains that would fill cisterns, ditches, and caves. Again, the rain falls. This time, it is a furious rain, a torrent of unrelenting water that seems bent on destroying the world. Again, this is not what the people wanted. Ḥoni prays a final time, now for rains of benevolence, blessing, and generosity. And this time, the people do receive the waters they need.

Sometimes water trickles down in droplets and sometimes it is unleashed in sheets. It is not just life-sustaining or benevolent, powerful or destructive. By its existence, water insists that it is and contains all of these things.

Just as water, so too women

Water teaches us that we need not allow ourselves to be defined by any one characteristic. Sometimes we are like the rains of benevolence, falling softly and gently, and other times we come down like the rains that fill cisterns and ditches, fierce and strong.

As we let the waters of urḥatz cleanse our hands, here is a blessing: May we be like water, resisting definition and defying boundaries. May we allow ourselves to be many things at many moments, calling on different parts of ourselves as necessary. And may we fall gently in droplets and fiercely in sheets, knowing that only we have the power to define ourselves.