Politics or Social Justice: Should Rabbis Preach about Issues of the Day October 30, 2021 Rabbi Barry H. Block

"Nationwide, African American and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to lack complete plumbing than white households. Indigenous households are nineteen times more likely... Race, ethnicity, and language spoken have the strongest relationships to slow and inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act of any sociodemographic characteristics. Sadly, though, unless we experience these impacts of systemic racism directly, we can more easily ignore them than commit ourselves to the task of dismantling them.

"For many, the mass lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, marked a moment of awakening. Fifty-seven percent of Flint residents are African American, and forty percent live below the poverty line. Nearly one hundred thousand people, including nine thousand children, were exposed to dangerous amounts of lead when the water source was switched from the Detroit Water Authority to the Flint Water System. This crisis is the paradigmatic example of how systemic racism affects water supply.

"Flint fell under state control in 2011 because of its desperate economic conditions, leading to a 2014 decision by then-governor Rick Snyder to appoint an unelected emergency manager, Michael Brown. Both are white. In a cost-cutting move, Brown switched the city's water supply from Detroit's treated water to the untreated water of the Flint River. In treating the river water, the city failed to add a corrosion inhibitor, causing lead to leach from the city's pipes. For eighteen months, polluted, discolored, foul-smelling, and foul-tasting water that had traveled through aging, lead-leaching pipes was continuously directed into predominantly African American homes. Residents suffered rashes, hair loss, illness, and death from Legionnaire's disease, and the number of Flint's children with dangerously elevated blood lead levels doubled, even tripling in some neighborhoods.

"Further, the persistent US rejection of its obligation to the human right to water entrenches systemic racism. In 2020, We the People of Detroit, an organization committed to community research and water rights, released a report that identified a correlation between water shutoffs and increased cases of COVID-19. Discontinuing water service for inability to pay is incompatible with human rights, never more so than at a time when personal hygiene is necessary to avoiding contracting and spreading a deadly virus."

-Rabbi David Spinrad, "Digging Isaac's Third Well: Water and Systemic Racism," The Social Justice Torah Commentary, Ed. Rabbi Barry H. Block, New York: CCAR Press, 2021, pp. 36-37. (Note: The facts presented in these three paragraphs are fully documented with endnotes in the book.)

(יג) וַיִּגְדַּ֖ל הָאִ֑ישׁ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ הָלוֹךְ֙ וְגָדֵ֔ל עַ֥ד כִּֽי־גָדַ֖ל מְאֹֽד׃ (יד) וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ מִקְנֵה־צֹאן֙ וּמִקְנֵ֣ה בָקָ֔ר וַעֲבֻדָּ֖ה רַבָּ֑ה וַיְקַנְא֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים׃ (טו) וְכׇל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר׃ (טז) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲבִימֶ֖לֶךְ אֶל־יִצְחָ֑ק לֵ֚ךְ מֵֽעִמָּ֔נוּ כִּֽי־עָצַ֥מְתָּ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מְאֹֽד׃ (יז) וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ מִשָּׁ֖ם יִצְחָ֑ק וַיִּ֥חַן בְּנַֽחַל־גְּרָ֖ר וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב שָֽׁם׃ (יח) וַיָּ֨שׇׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃ (יט) וַיַּחְפְּר֥וּ עַבְדֵֽי־יִצְחָ֖ק בַּנָּ֑חַל וַיִּ֨מְצְאוּ־שָׁ֔ם בְּאֵ֖ר מַ֥יִם חַיִּֽים׃ (כ) וַיָּרִ֜יבוּ רֹעֵ֣י גְרָ֗ר עִם־רֹעֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק לֵאמֹ֖ר לָ֣נוּ הַמָּ֑יִם וַיִּקְרָ֤א שֵֽׁם־הַבְּאֵר֙ עֵ֔שֶׂק כִּ֥י הִֽתְעַשְּׂק֖וּ עִמּֽוֹ׃ (כא) וַֽיַּחְפְּרוּ֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וַיָּרִ֖יבוּ גַּם־עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמָ֖הּ שִׂטְנָֽה׃ (כב) וַיַּעְתֵּ֣ק מִשָּׁ֗ם וַיַּחְפֹּר֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וְלֹ֥א רָב֖וּ עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ רְחֹב֔וֹת וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־עַתָּ֞ה הִרְחִ֧יב יְהֹוָ֛ה לָ֖נוּ וּפָרִ֥ינוּ בָאָֽרֶץ׃

(13) and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: (14) he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. (15) And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. (16) And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” (17) So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. (18) Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. (19) But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, (20) the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him. (21) And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. (22) He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last Adonai has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

(א) ויקרא שם הבאר עשק יספר הכתוב ויאריך בענין הבארות ואין בפשוטי הספור תועלת ולא כבוד גדול ליצחק והוא ואביו עשו אותם בשוה אבל יש בדבר ענין נסתר בתוכו כי בא להודיע דבר עתיד כי "באר מים חיים" ירמוז לבית אלהים אשר יעשו בניו של יצחק ולכן הזכיר באר מים חיים כמו שאמר (ירמיהו יז יג) מקור מים חיים את ה' וקרא הראשון עשק ירמוז לבית הראשון אשר התעשקו עמנו ועשו אותנו כמה מחלוקות וכמה מלחמות עד שהחריבוהו והשני קרא שמה שטנה שם קשה מן הראשון והוא הבית השני שקרא אותו כשמו שכתוב בו (עזרא ד ו) ובמלכות אחשורוש בתחילת מלכותו כתבו שטנה על יושבי יהודה וירושלם וכל ימיו היו לנו לשטנה עד שהחריבוהו וגלו ממנו גלות רעה והשלישי קרא רחובות הוא הבית העתיד שיבנה במהרה בימינו והוא יעשה בלא ריב ומצה והאל ירחיב את גבולנו כמו שנאמר (דברים יט ח) ואם ירחיב ה' אלהיך את גבולך כאשר דבר וגו' שהוא לעתיד וכתיב בבית השלישי (יחזקאל מא ז) ורחבה ונסבה למעלה למעלה ופרינו בארץ שכל העמים יעבדוהו שכם אחד:

(1) AND HE CALLED THE NAME OF THE WELL ESEK. Scripture gives a lengthy account of the matter of the wells when in the literal interpretation of the story there would seem to be no benefit nor any great honor to Isaac in that he and his father did the identical thing. However, there is a hidden matter involved here since Scripture’s purpose is to make known a future matter. A well of living water alludes to the House of G-d which the children of Isaac will build. This is why Scripture mentions a well of living waters, even as it says, A fountain of living waters, the Eternal. (Jeremiah 17:13). He called the first well Esek (Contention), which is an allusion to the First House, concerning which the nations contended with us and instigated quarrels and wars with us until they destroyed it. The second well he called Sitnah (Enmity), a name harsher than the first. This alludes to the Second House, which has indeed been referred to by this very name, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote ‘sitnah’ against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 4:6). And during its entire existence they were a source of enmity unto us until they destroyed it and drove us from it into bitter exile. The third well he called Rechovoth (Spacious). This is a reference to the Future House, which will be speedily built in our days, and it will be done without quarrel and feud, and G-d will enlarge our borders, even as it says, And if the Eternal thy G-d enlarge thy border, as He hath sworn, etc. (Deuteronomy 19:8), which refers to the future. And concerning the Third House of the future it is written, Broader and winding about higher and higher (Ezekiel 41:7). [The concluding statement in the present narrative, concerning the naming of the third well], And we shall be fruitful in the land, signifies that all peoples will come to worship G-d with one consent.

"Today, affordable access to water seems like a messianic dream, but working toward this fundamental right is within our capacity. Senator Kamala Harris and Dolores Huerta, cofounder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, offered concrete solutions to this problem:

"'We must [establish] safe water...[as] an engine of equitable economic growth. The United States needs a $1 trillion investment to meet our collective water infrastructure needs over the next 25 years, which would create millions of family-sustaining jobs. We should guarantee that front-line communities receive their fair share of investment, including those served by very small water systems and household drinking wells, as well as in our urban cities. We must pass the Water Justice Act, which will invest in communities that have burdened environmental injustices for generations. It would establish a new $10 billion water affordability program and make a $220 billion investment in clean and safe drinking water initiatives...Make no mistake, the fight for water justice is a fight for environmental justice. It is a fight for climate justice. It is a fight for racial justice.'

"While passage of legislation like the Water Justice Act would positively contribute to the fight for racial justice we should go further--all Americans must embrace safe and affordable water access as a basic human right. This will bring us closer to the prophetic vision foreseen by Isaiah, an age when water will flow unceasingly for all and 'joyfully shall [we] draw water from the fountain of salvation' (Isaiah 12:3)."

-Spinrad, pp. 38-39.