Protecting Water, Healing Ourselves and the Earth

מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּשַׁחֲרִית. מִשֶּׁיַּכִּיר בֵּין תְּכֵלֶת לְלָבָן. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, בֵּין תְּכֵלֶת לְכַרְתּי

From when does one recite Shema in the morning? From the moment when one can distinguish between the color tekhelet and white. Rabbi Eliezer says: From the moment when one can distinguish between tekhelet and leek-green.

I vividly remember walking with the trees on my left. I had left the albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) right before the crack of dawn. These words echoed in my head. I had studied them a couple of years prior in Rabbi Vivie Mayer’s mekhinah class, and they were still resonating with me. I had never been one to say the Shema in the morning with any frequency. But now, walking a Catholic pilgrimage, I felt moved to take note of the rising light.

This was 2019. I had embarked on a nearly 200-mile walk across Portugal and Spain. Traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago, I left home with an intention that over the course of this walk, I would search for my Hebrew name. Having a name that spoke to water felt important to me, as well as a name that worked in both Hebrew and Arabic. After nearly three weeks of walking, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

I walked to the pilgrim’s office to receive my compostela, my certificate of completion. The attendant asked me to hand over my U.S. passport. “May I write your name in Latin?” he asked me. “Sure,” I replied. He handed me my compostela. I read my name in Latin: Mariam. Mariam, the Arabic derivative of the Hebrew Miriam, the prophetess of water. I had been named.

During my years in rabbinical school, water has become a recurring theme for me. I left for the indigenous-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock weeks after the prospective student institute that I attended at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Little did I know how water would shape my rabbinical-school journey, the rabbinate I have now begun and my theology.

At Standing Rock, we gathered from around the world. Early in the morning, the women at camp were called to the water. They dumped baby jars filled with water from where they had come, into the body of water before us at the Oceti Sakowin camp. Mni Wiconi, the indigenous elders would say, to remind us that water is life.

Later in the day, I would stand before hundreds of armed police in riot gear who stood on top of an indigenous burial site. I noticed the bright lights in the not-so-far distance that illuminated the path of the drills making way for the tar sands oil pipeline. Though the situation that was in front of me was intimidating and intense, I felt safe. Sometimes, the smoke of the burning sage would blur the image of the threat of violence before my eyes. Listening to the indigenous elders who beat their drums and maintained a chant of “You have guns, we have prayers,” I reminded myself of my purpose. I was there to protect the waters, the indigenous burial grounds, the sacred land that was never ceded. My theology was being formed.

The earth is made up of 71% water. Our bodies are made up of 60% water. Water is everywhere. Six years since I was at Standing Rock, I find myself as the rabbi of Mending Minyan. Before we wash our hands at our Passover seder, we read these words:

Water is necessary for life. As water is privatized, and pollution from industry and agriculture increases, many people around the world live with not enough water, or water that is dangerous to consume.

In the West Bank, the Israeli military and Jewish settlements seize control of water sources and divert it away from Palestinians to Israeli Jews. In Gaza, 97% of the water supply is not potable, due to Israeli bombing of filtration plants and the Israeli ban on construction materials. As a result, many Palestinian communities lack what is necessary for daily life.

Here on this continent, Indigenous Water Protectors of the Great Lakes lead the struggle against the proliferation of tar sand oil pipelines … that pollute waterways, sacred sites, and treaty lands. In doing so, Indigenous Water Protectors not only risk brutality and arrest in order to protect the headwaters of our great rivers and the drinking water of millions of people. They also remind us that water is the first medicine, that water is life.

Back at Standing Rock, I joined the throngs of people who marched towards Turtle Island. Energy bars, helmets, goggles, shields and water bottles all flew past as they were tossed from stranger to stranger, comrade to comrade.

Water is the first medicine. Water is life.

We shared one purpose — to stop the pipeline and protect the waters. Certainly, we didn’t agree on all issues across the board, but somehow, camping out in the bitter November cold of North Dakota and being unified in the struggle for which we all were present, we were unified in a way I had not experienced before.” מה–נורא המקום הזה. How awesome is this place.” (Genesis 28:17) How sacred is this place. The waters, within us, and for which we fought, connected us, to one another and to the land beneath our feet. If water is life, I thought, then water is how I know God. Water is the force that connects all life. It is water that courses through all of our bodies and that runs throughout a majority of this planet we call home. It is the connecting force above all others.

In the summer of 2021, I traveled to another indigenous-led pipeline protest in Northern Minnesota to resist the Line 3 pipeline at the headwaters of the Mississippi river. Great-grandmother Mary Lyons offered a welcome on the day of my arrival in which she shared these words:

We are all water carriers. Our bodies are made up of mostly water. Our lineage line and our ancestral stories are that … . The creation stories we believe we come from the stars. Our spirit meets with creator, and we have this original agreement that we’ll come to earth and come as a student, walk as a student and leave as a student. When we come, we enter our mother’s womb, and we swim in those oceans for up to nine months while she builds us a beautiful blanket of a body around our spirit. And when we meet that day, that doorway, we take that first breath, air, and then we feel the warmth of the fire. We are nourished, and we plant our feet on Earth. You see those are the only four elements. Those four elements show no prejudice and everything within this planet depends on those four elements.

Water courses through all of our bodies and runs throughout most of this planet we call home

Her words grounded me. In a car on the way to an action the next day, Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg asked: “Who would you like to carry with you to this action?” It’s a question I’d been asked many times before. I would typically respond with the name of a biological, chosen or movement ancestor. This time was different. To my surprise, I responded with the name of a person who was still living and who had caused tremendous pain. I lifted up the name of Jennifer Joseph, the mother of my piano student, Devon Joseph (zichrono livracha), whom she murdered in 2020. In the last conversation we had before she took Devon’s life, she shared with me about how she had recently learned about indigenous ancestors of hers and how she was beginning to learn about indigenous spirituality.

Later, I reflected on why I felt called to bring Jennifer with me in spirit to this action. I contemplated a teaching by an indigenous elder who taught that we must energetically attack what is bad within a person, but never attack a person themselves. No matter what we are faced with, we must always respond with love. The tremendous anger that I had felt towards her began to morph into deep disappointment and anger towards the systems that be.

We must energetically attack what is bad within a person but never attack a person themselves.

It was as though I experienced a teshuvah within myself that allowed me to heal. The shifting of emotion flows like water. There is a midrash that teaches when a baby is in its mother’s womb, it knows all of Torah. When it is born, an angel comes and touches it on its lips, and the baby loses that infinite wisdom and must spend its entire life learning it.

At the beginning of a contact improvisation class I took in 2019, the instructor opened with this quote from Toni Morrison:

You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.

In this passage, I hear great-grandmother Mary Lyons speaking about our mother’s womb in which we swim. I believe that while we are in those waters, we still know all of Torah. When I remember water, I allow myself to be transformed, to remember myself in utero untouched by the violence of this world, the influences, both positive and negative, spiraling around me. When overwhelm, anger and grief flood me, I must connect to the waters within me, within you, upon which I stand, and from which I come. It is water from where we come, that connects us and allows for transformation.

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