The Water of Life: Shabbat Message from Cantorial Soloist Jake Harris

In this week’s parashah, Matot Maasei, it is written:

“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of Israel, saying, “This is the word that God has commanded. If a person makes a vow to God or swears an oath, they must not permit their word to remain unfulfilled. They shall do whatever has come forth from their mouth.”

 Growing up in Cambridge, MA, I was surrounded by a litany of different cultures and economic situations. I quickly learned that every person comes to the table with a story, many of which contain extreme hardship. I remember two of my classmates in elementary school arguing about their home countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea. I asked them, “What is causing your two homelands to be at war?” and their answer was, “Water”.

As a young person I had no understanding of what it meant to fight over water; I had everything I needed, and then some.  Additionally, Cambridge has some of the most advanced water treatment systems in the world… almost any tap can give you some of the freshest, cleanest water available.  It wasn’t until my recent trip to Kenya that I saw the struggle for water firsthand.

On safari, you see water’s unparalleled importance.  The life of most animals consists of grazing, avoiding predators, and drinking water. Unfortunately, water sources are becoming increasingly scarce. Many animals must travel far to find a small watering hole from which they can access this elixir of life. Due to climate change, watering holes in many places we saw are dwindling, and riverbanks have deep crevasses where water once flowed.

I shared many photos and videos of the animals and their beauty on social media, but what was not shown was the rampantly abject poverty that gripped most of the cities and villages we passed through. Here are just a few startling realities of that region:

– Many of the villagers live off of 1$ USD a day

– Some live off of 100$ USD a year

– 9.9 million people in Kenya drink directly from contaminated water sources.

It is normal for people to carry oversized jugs filled with contaminated water on the side of the road to their homes; never mind the damage to their backs. Time and time again, we were instructed never to drink from the tap, as the risk of serious disease was astronomical.

In a world that contains such abundant wealth,

the fact that so many are without clean water is one of humanity’s greatest collective failures.

Throughout my life, I have seen advertisements for aiding impoverished countries, and I have allowed myself to feel disconnected from them. The great civil rights advocate, Bryan Stevenson, has spoken about how in order to seek justice one must get close to injustice.  After seeing so many people suffer so greatly due to a lack of access to life’s most basic necessity, I can longer turn a blind eye to their plight.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses speaks of upholding the vows one makes. Many times, we are given lip service by seemingly well-meaning individuals who quell our moral outrages with the exact words they think we want to hear, without substantial action.  A true Tzaddik or righteous person will uphold the oaths they take and see to it that their actions reflect their innate genuine desire to do good.

In the spirit of learning from our ancient traditions, I vow to commit myself to help ensure clean drinking water to people in need and humbly ask those around me, with whom this story resonates, to join me on this journey.

As Jews, our duty to perform mitzvot and engage in tikkun olam (repairing the world) must start with the unrelenting commitment to ensure every person on this planet has access to mayim chayim – clean water, the water of life. Ken Yihi Ratzon – May it be God’s will.

Charitywater.org is an organization that gives 100% of its proceeds to providing water for those in need.  Please consider a donation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantorial Soloist Jake Harris

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton




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