Torah Like Water

A creative interpretation yields a valuable lesson about the vital importance of Torah to the Jewish people.

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Reprinted with permission of the Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

A Canon Without Closure

We tend to think of revelation as a highly restrictive term.The fate of a revealed text is to be immutable. We humans have no right to alter what God has given. But inJudaism, precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning.

drinking waterIn contrast to human speech, which carries a finite range of meanings, the language of God was deemed to be endowed with an infinity of meanings. This theology freed the Rabbis to do midrash, creating the anomaly of a canon without closure. The vessels kept changing their contents. New challenges elicited new insights into a text inviolable only on the surface.

A Metaphoric Reading

In this week's parashah we have an instance of a metaphoric reading that takes us in a single move from the physical world to the realm of the spiritual. I focus on this piece of midrash not only because it reflects brilliantly how the Rabbis transcended the literal confines of the Torah, but also because it sheds light on the mystery of Jewish survival.

After crossing the Sea of Reeds with God's unforgettable help, the Israelites continued on into the wilderness of Shur. Three days into their journey without water, their mood turned ugly. The water at Marah was toobitter to drink. They groused and God instructed Moses to sweeten the water with a piece of wood, which he did successfully (15:22-25). The incident is note worthy only as a harbinger of uprisings to come. Miracles failed to change the Israelites into long-term believers.

Thirsty For Torah

It is the midrash that lifts the episode out of the ordinary. On the verse, "They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water" (22), some mystically inclined Rabbis opined: "Water actually stands for Torah, as it is said (by Isaiah, 55:1), 'Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water.' Having gone for three days without Torah, the prophets among them stepped forth and legislated that the Torah should be read on the second and fifth days of the week as well as on Shabbat so that they would not let three days pass without Torah" (Babylonian Talmud, BavaKama 82a).

The analogy drives home the point that Torah to Jews is as vital as water to humans. They are both indispensable sources of life. In exploring other planets for life, space scientists look first for signs of water. Without Torah, Jewish life would face extinction. That is why R. Akiva defied the Roman prohibition to teach Torah after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Jews would perish like fish out of water. Even after his arrest, he continued to teach his students from prison. His martyrdom served as an indelible tribute to the primacy of Torah (BT Berakhot 61b; PT, Yevamot 12:5).Thus an inspired midrash transformed a prosaic narrative into a poetic symbol of enduring power. Water as a metaphor for Torah became a staple of rabbinic literature.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.