I was with a group of people the other day – yes, a group of people! – and we were talking about what we do for fun, dream vacations, and other similar topics. A few of us mentioned that as long as we were near water, we were happy. On a beach, near a lake, sailing, even just having a good view of a beautiful natural body of water, that was enough.
There’s just something about water. Of course, it’s essential for life. But clearly it’s more than that. Some people relieve their stress with a long bath or hot shower; many people love to swim, and there’s just something about a cold beverage on a really hot day or a warm beverage on a really cold day that does more than quenches our thirst.
Water is an important theme of this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. The Midrash teaches that because of Miriam, the Israelites always had access to water through a well that accompanied them on their journey in the wilderness, Miriam’s Well. When Miriam dies in our portion, they are left without water. Moses strikes a rock to bring forth water, not following God’s specific instructions, which leads to God banning Moses from entering the land of Israel.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, also known as the Velveteen Rabbi, shares this teaching of the Sefat Emet and her interpretation on our Torah portion and water:
In one of the commentaries we read this week from the Sfat Emet, I found a teaching that references the well that tradition says followed Miriam in the wilderness, providing water for the children of Israel. Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says it was one of the ten things created on the eve of the first Shabbat of creation, held in reserve until it was needed.
After mentioning Miriam’s well, the Sfat Emet quotes Proverbs 5:15: “Drink water from your cistern, and flowing water from your well.” There are two ways to get water: from a cistern, and from a well. A cistern holds “gathered waters” — it’s a tank, a water tower, a bucket on a roof. But eventually, a cistern will run dry. A well, on the other hand, is “joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring.” A well is a symbol of intimate connection, in its root, to a source that will never run out.
This, says the Sfat Emet, is the difference between weekday and Shabbat. On weekdays we drink from a cistern. We measure out some of our saved water, and it renews us — in the ways that it is able. But we know that the water in a cistern will eventually turn brackish and run dry. We know that our resources are limited. But on Shabbat, “the inner wellsprings are opened.” On Shabbat, we get to drink from the well, from the source.
He’s no longer talking just about the difference between water from a jug and water from a working faucet. He’s talking about the difference between measuring out a little bit of our limited spiritual resources each day, and basking in the complete spiritual plenitude that Shabbat offers. Weekdays are a time of limited resources: we all know how that feels. There’s so much that’s broken. There isn’t enough of me to go around. Shabbat is qualitatively different. Shabbat herself is the ever-flowing spring.
On this Shabbat, may we pause and refresh ourselves with the essential, renewing nature of both water and rest.