Waters of Uncertainty
“If it doesn’t rain, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” commented a NASA water-cycle scientist recently on the drought that has been devastating California. With rainfall and reservoirs at historically low levels, the state’s farm owners and laborers are increasingly faced with dire choices: What percentage of their fields will they have to leave fallow? How many farmhands and migrant workers will have to be laid off? At what point should one give up—uproot one’s family, move on, and do something else? As the drought intensifies, so do the feelings of uncertainty. The stories of the drought’s impact—on individuals, families, and entire communities—remind us how tenuous life is for those whose livelihoods are bound up in the land and for all those who depend on them.
In Parashat Eikev, as the Israelites are on the threshold of entering the Land, Moses embarks on an extended praise of Canaan, a land where “you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:9). To underscore its special nature, Moses compares the Promised Land, one that “soaks up its water from the rains of heaven” (11:11), to Egypt, where the grain was “watered by your own labors [literally ‘with one’s feet’], like a vegetable garden” (11:10). Thinking about the harsh realities currently facing California, the “promised land” of America’s own mythic imagination, these verses don’t seem to make much sense. What farmer would prefer a field that depended on rain (which might, as we learn later on in the parashah, be occasionally withheld) to a field sustained with irrigation? What are the springs and intermittent rains of Canaan compared to the mighty Nile, with its predictable rhythms and flow?
It turns out that our commentators also struggled to understand these lines. Sifrei Devarim, a collection of midrash halakhah, posed the question directly: “Is the verse praising the Land of Israel or praising Egypt?” (Sifrei 37). Indeed, Egypt is depicted in Genesis as a fertile land of abundance: “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Gen. 13:10), and it was to Egypt that Abraham and Jacob fled during times of severe famine in Canaan. And yet, it’s difficult to imagine the verse implying that the land of Canaan is worse than Egypt. Moses had just presented the Israelites with a utopian vision of a land bursting with natural resources: water, minerals, fruits, and grains.
Many traditional interpretations of the passage simply ignore the realities of the region’s climate in order to harmonize the verses with the parashah’s overarching theme of praise. Rashi, although he made his living growing grapes and would certainly have been sensitive to the vicissitudes of nature, follows the Sifrei, and suggests the verses highlight how life in Canaan will be less arduous than in Egypt: “In the land of Egypt one had to bring water from the Nile with one’s feet and then water the fields and one had to disturb one’s sleep and expend effort” to transfer the water from the plains to the highland. But the Land of Israel “drinks water ‘from the rains of heavens’—you may continue to sleep in your bed while the Holy One Blessed be He does the work for you” and waters all parts of the land, its hills and valleys. The Israelites are no longer servants, as in Egypt, but are served.
Modern biblical historians, on the other hand, have suggested that the key to understanding the verses as favorable to Canaan is to read them ironically. Playing on the Israelites’ longing in the wilderness for the abundance of Egypt—“the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Num. 11:5)—Moses disparages it as nothing but a “garden patch” when compared to the bounty of Canaan. Moses’s use of the phrase “vehishkita veraglekha” (to water with your feet) can be seen as a further dig at the Israelites’ Egyptian fantasies, since mei raglayim (waters of the feet) was a familiar euphemism for urine. From this perspective, Egypt is but a measly plot of land of urine-soaked vegetation while the land of Israel drinks from the pure waters of heaven.
But is there a way we can regard the very tenuousness of life in the land of Canaan as desirable? Can we imagine that a state of uncertainty is the preferred existential condition? In “The Promise,” in his collection of essays On Zion (1952), Martin Buber demonstrates how the very verses of our parashah express a profound theological statement about the relationship between Israel and God in the Land of Israel. Life in Egypt was actually easier than in Canaan, he acknowledges. The Nile rises and falls fairly predictably, and though it takes a significant amount of human and technological effort to distribute its waters, the Egyptian farmer could readily believe that his own efforts would ensure his survival. As far as water was concerned, Egyptians felt themselves independent of the divine. The gift of the Nile, once given, had come to seem like a possession; separated in their memory from the giver, the giver was then forgotten.
The situation of the farmer in Canaan was much more precarious; in spite of being assured of yorehand malkosh, the early and late rains in their seasons, rainfall in the land was variable. But, according to Buber, the Bible considers being provided for as detrimental to the kind of life that really matters. It is much harder to lose sight of God’s ongoing involvement in the world when life hangs in the balance: “the very nature of the land of Canaan bears witness to the unremitting providence of God” (25). The farmers in Egypt can mistakenly believe that their own efforts will secure their survival, but the farmers in Canaan—and, by extension, those who live in the land and depend on them for their survival—know otherwise. Dwelling in the land will ensure that they continually seek out God as a source of strength and comfort: “In Canaan, Israel realizes that rain is a gift and it recognizes the giver” (27). Buber’s writing emerges from his sense of the unique role the land of Israel plays in the realization of God’s covenant, and contemporary residents of Israel—and California—may or may not feel that their experiences of drought deepen their connection to the divine. However, we all might reflect on whether it is amidst the stresses and challenges of our own lives that God’s presence is most keenly experienced.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
Lyle Eslinger, “Watering Egypt (Deuteronomy XI 10–11),” Vetus Testamentum, XXXVII (1): 1987.