Publisher’s Notebook by Arthur Horwitz
“Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.”
The annual retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt at our Passover seders is framed and enhanced by the evening’s many symbolic actions. We wash our hands. We invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Our seder table contains items representing bricks, mortar and bitter tears. Our young ask: Why? Why? Why? Why? We recline in freedom. We spill a drop of wine after each of the 10 plagues are revealed. We mash a hard-boiled egg into a bowl with salt water. We leave a cup of wine for Elijah and open a door to welcome him. In some homes, a goblet of water is placed to honor Moses’ sister, Miriam.
Regardless of the Haggadah utilized (I grew up with the Maxwell House coffee version; we now use A Night to Remember by Mishael and Noam Zion), the underlying message endures for the ages … the aspiration of freedom over slavery and oppression. And, in every generation, there are those who enslave and oppress, or attempt to do so.
There is one portion of the biblical story of the Exodus that, today, has special resonance.
In Exodus 15:22-25, we learn of the Israelites sojourning through the wilderness of Shur and lacking fresh water. When they come to Marah, the water is undrinkable and the people complain to their leader, Moses. He hears their pleas and cries out for Divine intervention. Moses is then provided with the means to make the water drinkable. In exchange for ongoing obedience to the Lord, the Israelites are assured that they will be spared from diseases like the ones experienced by the Egyptians and, presumably, from tainted water.
As we gather with our family and friends across the Detroit metropolitan area, we take for granted that “sweet water” is entering our homes through pipes linked to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department, which now operates under the newly formed umbrella of the Great Lakes Water Authority.
Look around your seder table. “Sweet water” is everywhere. It’s in the chicken soup, the matzah balls, the homemade gefilte fish, the coffee and tea. It is used to clean the dishes, pots, pans and utensils. It’s in the ritual washing cup and the ice cubes dropped into our glasses. It boiled the potatoes and eggs and steamed the vegetables. It rinsed the fresh fruit. It’s in your grandchild’s bottle of baby formula and Miriam’s symbolic cup.
For the people of Flint, their waters were once “sweet,” too … drawn from the identical water source and treated with the same additives that we utilize. Their waters, however, were made bitter — not through Divine intervention — but through those duty-bound to protect and serve them.
In the wilderness, the Israelites complained about the undrinkable water and Moses — perhaps the greatest biblical leader — heard their complaints with his own ears. We see no mention of advisers, councils or others who stood between the people and Moses, shielding him so he could focus on other pressing matters. We see no evidence that Moses pondered the issue, ordered a study to determine if the quality of the water met minimum standards and encouraged or allowed the thirsty masses to continue consuming the water in the interim period. Rather, Moses cries out directly to the Lord for immediate intervention and is presented with a remedy.
Yet in Flint, when the people voiced their concern about the bitter water, their complaints were dismissed, discounted or ignored. Just the same bunch of kvetches who are unhappy about everything anyway … They were powerless in the face of long-established structures of indifference represented by people whose hearts turned out to be as hardened as Pharaoh’s. And as a result, people died. Children were poisoned. All from the same spigot that once connected them and us.
Belatedly, efforts are under way to treat Flint’s bitter waters. Allocations of safe, bottled water are provided to individuals and families for drinking, cooking and bathing. Periodic readings show levels of lead are abating in the public water system. But the basic trust — between the government and those being governed — has been shattered. If the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) said your tap water was now safe, would you drink it? If MDEQ said drilling for oil in Southfield would not pose any environmental damage, would you accept it? If MDEQ said air quality in Southwest Detroit posed no unusual health risks, would you take a deeper breath of it?
As you reflect upon the story of the Exodus and what it means to move from slavery to freedom, survey the many symbolic items adorning your seder table. Then, consider the following:
- When symbolically washing your hands at the outset of the seder, please offer a prayer for the people of Flint;
- Place a glass of “sweet water” drawn from your tap next to Elijah’s cup. Let it serve as a reminder that clean water — which you are consuming in myriad forms as an integral part of your seder — was poisoned for the people of Flint.
- Visit the www.flintkids.org site and make a contribution — perhaps the kids can donate dollars they received in exchange for the afikoman and the household can contribute the equivalent of what it would have expended if it had two more guests — from Flint — at the seder table.
May you and your family have a festive and meaningful Passover. As we yearn for “next year in Jerusalem,” may we also pray that our hearts will not harden in the face of unprecedented challenges facing the people of Flint and the governmental bodies responsible for protecting their health and safety. *