Water for Life

This portion calls on us to make clean water a focal point of our action and advocacy.

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

As the title suggests, this week’s parashah deals with the care and treatment of metzorot–lepers–as well as people with other physical afflictions and diseases. The text gives instructions for purification so that individuals who leave the community because of illness and impurity may re-enter safely. Not surprisingly, fresh water is essential to the process: “He shall…bathe his body in mayyim hayim and he shall be clean (Leviticus 15:13).”

The Hebrew phrase mayim hayim translates as “living waters.” These waters are, indeed, the waters of life. The sense of the idiom, according to modern translator Robert Alter, is that the water is not stagnant, but flowing, either from a spring or river. “The…ritual,” he writes, “is designed to carry off the impurities from the place inhabited by the community (Alter, The Five Books of Moses).”

Illness & Water

While water’s function of carrying disease away from the camp is central to the parashah, the phrase “living waters” also provides a description of what the water brings to the community. The words “living waters” convey how essential clean fresh water is to all people. It provides for sanitation and health, both in treating illness and in preventing it.

The parashah makes the assumption that illness is inevitable. The word “when” is used repeatedly to introduce the instructions for healing (Leviticus 15:12, 13, 16, 19, 25, 28). This phrasing calls on us to ensure that we can treat illness, as well as prevent it as much as possible. In this context, we are directed to ensure access to clean water in order to restore health and life.

Note that the Torah assumes that, even in the desert, living waters will be available for cleansing and purification. In a sense, ensuring that the Israelites had access to flowing water for drinking and sanitation was essential to their national survival. Yet in the modern global community, billions of people lack access to the water they need to live and thrive.

The lack of clean water endangers the health and economic well-being of more than a third of the developing world. According to the United Nations, 2.6 billion people–42 percent of the world’s population–lack access to basic sanitation. This results in preventable child and adult deaths and disease, and expands the divide between rich and poor.

Improving sanitation can dramatically improve the lives of individuals and communities. Every dollar spent on improving sanitation and hygiene results in up to 34 dollars saved in health, education, and social and economic development.

The International Year of Sanitation

2008 is the International Year of Sanitation, part of the International Decade for Action on Water declared by the United Nations in 2005. While significant progress is being made on providing safe drinking water, the drive to increase sanitation is well below its targets.

The major barrier, says U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is a lack of political will. Our elected leaders have not made water a priority and neither have we. Here again, the Torah teaches us.

The Israelites who fell ill, who became impure with skin afflictions and discharge, were not neglected by the community. Rather, they were cared for by the most revered members of the community, the priests. The religious and political leaders themselves stepped out of the mishkan and walked among the people to engage personally with lepers.

Imagine the implications for our global community if political and religious leaders paid regular visits to those suffering from preventable diseases, to those denied access to sanitation, to those without living water. Providing a spotlight for the current reality would build political will. It is when leaders step out of their houses of leadership and walk among the community that real needs begin to be addressed.

The name of the U.N. movement for water and sanitation is called “Water for Life.” This week’s parashah calls on us to raise our voices to make clean water a focal point of our action and advocacy.

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