Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, provides an incisive midrash in his most recent Shalom Report, titled Bitter Waters – 3,000 Years Ago & Now; From the Sinai Wilderness to Flint of Michigan on Exodus 15:23-24. Below is his essay:
These past two weeks, an ancient and a modern tale of bitter, poisonous waters suddenly rang together as an alarm and an awakening. Right now: We have been learning about the horrifying and disgusting behavior of the government of Michigan, turning off the pipes bringing pure water from Lake Huron to the mostly Black citizens of the city of Flint and instead sending poisonous waters to Flint. (The Governor, Rick Snyder, is no Tea Party type, but a fairly typical “establishment” Republican businessman — anti-labor, anti-choice for women, anti-Syrian-refugees, and contemptuous of pleas from the Black folks of Flint to end the poisoning of their children.)
So the bitter waters came: Waters that stank and were colored brown and green, waters that caused rashes and boils to spring up on the skins of those who had to drink it. Waters infused with lead, which is well-known to permanently and irreversibly damage the brains of young children. Long long ago: The age-old Torah telling that we read this past Shabbat was the story of how ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s power dissolved and his army drowned there. Just a few days later, according to the story, they protested because they had no water fit to drink. What connects these two events?
On February 25, 1964, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, friend and political comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at a Conference on Religion and Race. Just one month before, Jews had been reading that Torah portion about crossing the Red Sea. Heschel’s speech is both a stunning midrash (interpetation) of the biblical story, and the only occasion in all the many works of his that I have read when he turned to irony and sarcasm to make his angry point. His essay is called “The White Man on Trial,” published in a collection of his essays, The Insecurity of Freedom [Schocken, 1972; Farrar Straus, 1996, pp. 101-102]:
“The decisive event in the story of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt was the crossing of the Red Sea … It was a moment of supreme spiritual exaltation, of sublime joy, and prophetic elevation for the entire people. … Then Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went three days in the Wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. And they protested against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ This episode seems shocking. What a comedown! — Only three days earlier they had reached the highest peak of prophetic and spiritual exaltation, and now they complain about such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water.
“The Negroes of America behave just like the children of Israel. Only in 1963 they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history … the March to Washington. Now only a few months later they have the audacity to murmur, ‘We want adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.’ How ordinary, how unpoetic, how annoying!…That prosaic demand for housing without vermin, for adequate schools, for adequate employment — right here in the vicinity of Park Avenue in New York City — seems so trite, so drab, so banal, so devoid of magnificence.
“The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life. …The prophet’s field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity, but the blights of society, the affairs of the market place. … [The prophet] addresses himself to those who trample upon the needy, who increase the price of grain, use dishonest scales, and sell the refuse of corn. The Negro movement is an outcry of pain in which a sickness of our total society comes to expression: supersonic planes and sub-standard housing; esoteric science and vulgar ethics; an elite of highly specialized experts, and a mass of unprepared, unskilled laborers. …Religion becomes a mockery if we remain callous to the irony of sending satellites to the sky and failing to find employment for our fellow citizens, of a highly publicized World’s Fair and insufficient funds for the extermination of vermin in the slums. Is religion to be a mockery?”
And back to right now. Here is a report from Flint by Jacqueline Patterson, staff director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. The Shalom Center has worked closely with her for several years as co-members of the steering committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC) and on a new project seeking religious congregations’ support for creating Neighborhood Solarization Coops. She wrote from Flint on January 15, 2016:
“Yesterday, I drove from Baltimore to Flint, Michigan to support the NAACP Flint Branch, Michigan State Conference, and regional office in dealing with the Lead Contaminated Water Crisis. When I arrived, I heard demands for shifting the money spent on armed National Guard persons (who they said bring a sense of threat given the relationship between black communities and armed forces) in terms of transport, lodging, etc. to bring in water, to providing local jobs for water distribution. We also heard demands for replacing infrastructure and ensuring that the pipefitting and other jobs go to local people. We heard the need for a return to sovereignty and democracy versus the imposed Emergency Financial Manager situation under which the string of decisions that brought them into this situation were made.
“In one heartbreaking moment, a woman, with tearful emotion, described her blended family where her stepson lives in Detroit and she and her husband are supposed to have him on the weekends. Since this water crisis arose, the other mother of the son refuses to send him to Flint which, as she said, is tearing their hearts out, though they make adjustments at great expense to go and stay at a hotel in Detroit to be near him when they can. The stories go on … As things were wrapping up, a woman came up to me, hugged me tightly, and pushed something into my hand and said, ‘This is to help out because I appreciate you so much for coming down to help us. Get yourself some dinner.’ As I vehemently protested, she kept insisting, and I kept protesting, and then she gave me that ‘Mom’ look that said ‘Stop talking’ and said, ‘It’s only $10!!’ Just thinking of that moment brings tears to my eyes and touches my heart and soul all over again.
“Because of Flint, I missed the NAACP Southeast Region conference call to discuss developing an environmental justice action plan throughout a region that is besieged by sewage issues, the ravages of being a petrochemical corridor, etc., all in the context where Big Energy has a stronghold and many of the politicians act at the behest of moneyed interests instead of human wellbeing. Problems, problems everywhere and particularly in black communities, as well as in communities of color and low income communities more broadly!!”
From Moses to Heschel to Patterson. From Marah of bitter waters in the Sinai Wilderness, to Flint of poisoned waters in an abandoned Black American community. From a band of runaway slaves 3,000 years ago to the embattled heirs of enslavement today, still subjugated to brain damage in the 239th year of American freedom.
What then shall we do?
2) The NAACP is holding a “public mass meeting” at Northbank Center of the University of Michigan – Flint at 5 pm Tuesday evening, where its national president, ., will speak. The mass meeting will be live-streamed. For more information, call the Flint NAACP Branch at 810-742-8622.
3) The Flint chapter of the National Action Network, led by Michigan State NAN leader Rev. Charles Williams II, is calling for a mass mobilization in Washington, DC, on February 3 when Gov. Snyder testifies before Congress at the Oversight Committee hearing.
And that’s only the beginning! For the struggle against the Water-Poisoning Pharaohs of Michigan is the same struggle as the one against the Air-Poisoning Carbon Pharaohs of our planet. With blessings of covenant to work for shalom, salaam, peace, justice, and the healing of our wounded Mother Earth.–Arthur Waskow