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Womanhood, Water and Parshat Chukkas

Contributed by COEJL Intern Kate York

I am thirsty. I get up from my desk, walk roughly 10 feet to a sink, and turn the tap. Cold, clean water rushes into my cup, on demand. A thoughtless endeavor.

With modern utilities, we often forget that obtaining water has not always been so thoughtless. Yielding tremendous power, water historically has caused cities to sprout, economies to bloom, and people to thrive. Yet it has also been capable of causing conflict, death, and destruction.

Our ancient ancestors were not immune to these effects. Water security was a significant concern, particularly of our matriarchs. In fact, throughout history women have been water providers for our communities.

Miriam is inextricably tied to water, from her early childhood to her death. Most significantly, her compassion towards the Israelites is thought to have merited the miraculous well of water that accompanies them throughout their desert pilgrimage. In fact, the well is often called Be’er Miriam, the Well of Miriam.

Even the name Miriam contains aqueous connotations. It was likely formed as a contraction of the word marar, meaning strong (Job 27:2, Ruth 1:20), and yam, meaning seas or waters (Numbers 34:1-6). Miriam literally personifies the strength and life-giving powers of water, serving as a guardian to the Israelites, and their water source, throughout their most challenging journey.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chukkas (Numbers 19:1-22:1), illustrates Miriam’s role as leader of the Israelites. The parsha begins by delineating the procedure for purifying oneself after touching a corpse, foreshadowing the parsha’s later events. Immediately after, Miriam dies (Numbers 20:1), forcing the community to recognize the inevitability of the deaths of the aged leaders.

The people then become aware that their water supply has dissipated with her passing (Numbers 20:2). Stuck in the desert with an insufficient water supply, death begins to feel like an imminent possibility for all community members. Moses and Aaron work to find a remedy, but the people, specifically the men, turn against them. In the midst of the rebellion, God instructs Moses and Aaron to gather the people, and yield water from a rock. Now devoid of Miriam’s compassion and inspiration, Moses and Aaron act skeptical and frustrated towards God. These actions lead to a profound consequence: neither Aaron nor Moses is permitted to enter the Promised Land.

This Torah portion’s association of Miriam, womanhood, and water is striking. Because of her femininity, she was innately capable of providing water, physical and spiritual sustenance, to her people.

This connection between female leadership and water is not an anomaly. Historical records indicate women have often been tasked with retrieving water, and it has rarely been easy. In developed countries, this responsibility waned with the invention and dissemination of pipe-based water systems.

Today, though, many women in developing countries have still not been able to take advantage of these technologies. Women and girls still bear the burden of providing water for their families. They spend hours daily walking to retrieve water, and hours more carrying excessively heavy containers home. Climate change has already limited natural resources in many areas, creating daily hardships that disproportionately affect these women. The task of obtaining water disproportionately impacts women. Further, women are more likely to fall sick due to water-borne illnesses and are likely to experience gender-based violence in their trek towards ever-farther sources of water.

In the context of this portion, the warning is unequivocal: modern-day Miriam is hurting.

Acknowledging this gender disparity in climate impacts in developing countries, 42 nations came together last year to create the Green Climate Fund. The fund serves two purposes: working with developing communities to adapt to climate change and to mitigate climate change’s affects where they have already surfaced. Baked into the fund is a commitment to a gender-sensitive approach to development. The first projects have gotten underway, and results are looking promising.

Last week, the US State Foreign Operations Subcommittee approved a budget providing a $500 million contribution to the Green Climate Fund. The original budget appropriations request for the Fiscal Year 2017 was $750 million, making the $500 million funded a significant cut from expected allocations. However, though not as large a contribution as advocates hoped, continued funding demonstrated the United States’ support for gender-sensitive climate change engagement.

Last week, the US State Foreign Operations Subcommittee approved a budget providing a $500 million contribution to the Green Climate Fund. The original budget appropriations request for the Fiscal Year 2017 was $750 million, making the $500 million funded a significant cut from expected allocations. However, though not as large a contribution as advocates hoped, continued funding demonstrated the United States’ support for gender-sensitive climate change engagement.

Without strong action on this front, developed countries and our elected officials would fail to act with compassion and inspiration, as Moses and Aaron did in Parshat Chukat. We know that inaction has profound consequences. However, if developed countries act with compassion and inspiration, Miriam’s legacy – as a powerful stewardess, guardian, will not be lost.

Kate is a recent graduate of South Lakes High School, in Reston, VA. She will be attending Case Western Reserve University, where she plans to study the intersection of Civil Engineering, public policy, and theatre.

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