Sunday, December 8, 2019

Vayishlach: A River Runs Through It

An undisturbed river is as perfect a thing as we will ever know, every refractive slide of cold water a glimpse of eternity.
-Thomas McGuane

At the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is preparing for a long-awaited—and feared—reunion with his estranged brother Esau.  The night before that critical encounter, he ferries his entire family across the River Jabbok, then returns to the far bank, where he is left alone at nightfall.  There, by the riverside, he wrestles with a divine being until sunrise.

I believe the setting for this fateful meeting is no accident.  In the Midrash Tanchuma, the Rabbis teach that after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, there was no more revelation outside of Israel—except along the banks of rivers.  Our Sages knew that the Eternal One could be found in the presence of living water.  Daniel received the divine call as he stood by the Ulai River, and Ezekiel beheld the hosts of heaven from the banks of the Chebar.  Ezekiel’s ensuing vision of the Divine Chariot—complete with a raging storm, fiery winged, multi-headed creatures, and wheels rimmed with eyes—became the touchstone experience for all subsequent generations of Jewish mystics.  Thus an episode of revelation that is arguably second in importance only to Sinai took place along an otherwise unknown Chaldean stream.

Why does the Holy One so often choose to appear to our ancestors along river banks?  Perhaps there is something about flowing water that makes such places uniquely felicitous for people to receive the Divine Presence. The kabbalists believe that more than any other manifestation of God’s creation, rivers remind us of life’s fluidity. 

Alas, climate change is already taking a heavy toll on our rivers.  For six million years, the Colorado River ran to the sea.  Today, it dries out in the middle of the desert, deprived of water by dams and droughts.  Drastic changes in the timing and quantity of precipitation is already leading to both flooding and drought, and declining water quality as well. 

When a river dies, we squander a source of much bounty, to humanity and far beyond, to entire riparian ecosystems.  We also lose our spiritual centers where God is revealed to those who know how and where to look.  Jacob wrestled with the Divine—and found his best and brightest self—along the River Jabbok.  Without living rivers, where will we, his descendants, encounter the Holy One?

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