Copy link

Janusz Makuch: four essays about water

Janusz Makuch, founder and director of the JCF wrote especially for our newsletter fouor essays about water – the main theme of the upcoming  31st Jewish Culture Festival.

1. Water of life | מַיִם חַיִּים | mayim chayim

The Torah says that before God started the work of Creation, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1;2). Thus, water had existed before light, earth, living creatures and human beings were created. Chaos and water preceded the creation of all inanimate and animate nature; as they made up an absolute beginning of all times, a primeval moment with no beginning and no end, a powerful primeval sea, which, once tamed by God, had its reminiscence in a large basin standing close to the altar of burnt offering in front of the entrance to the Temple. Thus no wonder that in the Tanakh there are more than 600 references to water, whilst its further interpreters ascribed to water three core meanings, which are – cosmic power, the source of life and the force of purification.

And these three timeless aspects of water will become the subject of many of our reflections, both during the talks about the Jewish liturgy and also in the discussions about the deluge of hatred for the Jews, Israel and other nations, whose only guilt, in the eyes of barbarians, is that these nations want to live on their own soil, in the conditions of a relative peace.

(Now when I am writing these words, a genocidal war, provoked by Russia in Ukraine is being waged. As always, the aid of the so-called “West” is hesitant and therefore insufficient, so, in such a state of affairs, Ukraine is left absolutely alone. Both the “West” and Putin know it. Had it not been for the state of Israel, the fate of the Jews in the world would have been sealed. The story of Ukraine is similar – the fate of the Ukrainians depends solely on the strong Ukrainian state. At times when one is flooded by a barbarian deluge, it is only a strong, well-equipped and armed ark/state that is able to oppose the force of destruction. The rest is merely an illusion which costs lives.) 

Water, like no other element, contains a multitude of opposing meanings, like a genetic code of contrasts in human nature. It is equally a chaos and, at the same time, a harmonious unity, which brings to mind a blossom of life and also a destruction and death. It serves the purification and blessing, being simultaneously a sign of a curse and irrevocable punishment, as well as a paradisal creek and the spring of ecstasy. Water can be, at the same time, the eternity and a flash of a moment. This specific dualism deprives water of an attribute of unequivocal goodness. In so far as each day of creation was defined as “good”, the second day, when God divided the waters from the waters, was not referred to as good. This is perhaps why that the very act of division brings in an element of discord? The divisions between people make up an indispensable element if their co-existence. God, in the act of creation, always united, yet, in this case – it is God that divides. And it was of no avail that what divided the heavenly waters from the underground waters was the crystal firmament, solidified with the power of divine fire. Midrash says that on the very same day, God created also angels, earthly and underground fire Gehinom, which is hell. And hell does not bring any associations with good…

Talking about water ,we return to the sources of Judaism.

After thirty years’ journey from shtetls to Zion, we just return to the first sentences of the Torah, to understand better the complexities the contemporary world.

Just before the pandemic I decided that next editions of the Festival would provide an answer to the act of creation written down in the four core elements. This does not mean that we will treat these elements solely in a literal way. The next editions are some kind of a contemporary comment of the Festival participants to the texts carved down on the stone steps of the Jewish history. Literalism intertwines with a symbol, leading to a multitude of metaphors which make it easier for us to describe the past in the presence.

Returning to the sources, we want to rediscover the essence of the beginning, this Bereszit and to take a  more conscious responsibility for what we have become within that long period of time. I mean here both myself, my collaborators and the history of our Festival. The Festival is an endless road of cognition, so there is no way to return  to the place where we started.  Like pilgrims in the desert, after the purification in the healing waters of the Gihon Spring, we climb the road towards the light walls so as to enter the Courtyard of the Gentiles through one of the gates surrounding the Temple. Because everyone who trusts the Lord is like Mount Zion that cannot be shaken and will stand forever.

The ressourcement  – by its nature  – is a path against the tide.

Each time, an attempt to face the liquid reality is a challenge. Nobody wants to be on the crest of the wave, everyone wants to be the wave. As long as we have a possibility of the choice of the fruits from the garden of Jewish arts, we bring them fresh and ripe. We do not “expose” anything, do not put into a museum showcases, we do not blow ashes. We are the followers and debtors of a living culture. And this culture is like a raging wild river: sometimes it takes the form and shape of its bed, yet, in the deep, it circulates and changes invariably..

We are craving for Water of Life – Mayim Chayim/  מַיִם חַיִּים 

Thus I hope that together, we will immerse in the waters of the Festival time and that for many of us this will be an act of purification or, perhaps, even healing.

2. The source

I am haunted by an image of two brothers – one is murdered by the other. This is like foreshadowing genocide and the final extermination written on the painful charts of long centuries: these  former instances of fratricide with the stains of black-frozen blood and these contemporary ones with the blood which has not gone black yet. For centuries and forever the same. Because  one cannot cope with the evil (in oneself) in any possible way.

G-d had a considerable problem with this himself, as He quite soon realized that when sending the Flood, He would wipe out (rinse out) His own creation from the face of the earth. Too much evil and too much tendency towards evil:  “I regret that I have made them” (Genesis, 6:7 ) – said Lord and this was even before the history of humanitatis had managed develop for good. And for bad.

The founding myth of humanity is built on the fratricide. I understand human tendency shared by all religions to deny it, to repress it, and to believe in good existing from the dawn of time and also in eternal life and eternal redemption from the sins. Yet, we live here and now, feeling the smell of death, of smoke and decaying bodies. No God ever wanted it. This is solely our own creation, as each of us carries an indelible human stain in their heart.

The vision of another Deluge advancing is frightening, and this time G-d will not find another Noah (?). A mantra stating that perhaps future posterities will be better than the previous ones, has not been working for long generations and probably will never work.  To stay with the water terminology: the streams of propaganda, waterfalls of falsehood, rivers of cynicism and hatred – we are all flooded by them every day, unaware that this is already the Deluge. Another disaster, like another war, has always been inscribed in our history. We cannot avoid it. Short glimpses of relief allure us like a rainbow cast between the promise and the fulfilment  Before we all understand the value of the promise and before anything is fulfilled – the rainbow is gone.

Where to look for shelter then? In the Ark.

The Ark is a metaphor of our external world built of simple, and yet fundamental values, whilst the waters of destruction are forcing their way inside. If it is true that everything has been created for the good of a human, in the first place,  the human must take care of it – not of any “good of humanity”, because this is a nonsense, but about their own “wellbeing”. The world is exactly  like we are.

The Ark protects us against the evil and death.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. (…)  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live  (Deuteronomy, 30: 15 and 19) – G-d said to a human.

The Ark takes us to the source.

One of the sources of strength and repose for me is Judaism. For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light (Psalms 36,10). A long time ago, Rabbi Hillel, when wanting to explain to a pagan, what Judaism is, said: What is hateful to thee, do not do unto they fellow, this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Love is an inexhaustible source. So is hatred. For an utmost happiness, we, people would only need the respect for the “golden rule”; live and let live. No more and no less – but it turns out that this is already too much.

Let us return to the source where the awareness of the gestures and words begin – as well as the responsibility for them.

We return to the source, as its waters can heal us. In the search for harmony of the opposites of today’s chaos. We return miserable, with open wounds, in the search for the water of life, which has the healing power. As, in spite of the best intentions of the few, the Polish-Jewish wounds cannot heal. They ooze, swell and bleed under a thick layer of bandages.

We return to the source in the search of living water to clean the wounds. With no particular hope that the wounds will close, but with the best intention to make them stop bleeding.

We return to the source, because its waters have the power of physical and spiritual purification. Blood, especially spilt blood, does not cleanse. Life is in the blood (Genesis, 9,:4); and it is sanctified (Book of Leviticus. 17; 11 and 14 ). Whoever sheds human blood, by humans their blood be shed (Genesis, 9: 5-6). Perhaps there is somewhere a source whose waters will rinse out  the fratricidal blood…

Finally: water cleanses us from the sin of impurity and makes a human capable of living a dignified life with oneself and others/aliens. Like water from the source of Miriam, opened by Moses when striking the rock at Horeb with his staff (Exodus, 17:6) or in Meribah (Book of Numbers. 20: 11 ). Like the healing water which will flow from the threshold of the temple rebuilt by Messiah (Ezekiel, 47 ). This gives human the strength to live a conscious and responsible life. Thanks to this, it happens that evil can be defeated. No wonder than that until today the commandment of ritual cleansing is one of the fundamental rituals in Judaism (Book of Numbers 19, 20; 1-13 ). Wherever the Jews settled, they first built a mikveh and then a synagogue.

The sources which we head for this year, are the sources of the Land of Israel, where, after two thousand years of homelessness, persecutions, pogroms and Holocaust, the Jews returned. Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “…with joy you will draw water  from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah, 12:3).

At the estuary of human history, the rivers of falsehood and hatred converge, making up a stinky puddle.

The Ark of the JCF sails against the current, in the search of the source of מַיִם-חַיִּים, Majim Chajim, living water, which purifies and revives.

This source is Torah.

3.  The Joy of Drawing Water

Rivers are the circulation system of our planet –  just like blood, water is the habitat of all forms of life. Rivers, seas, oceans, lakes, springs – without waters there would be no existence, therefore no wonder that water had existed even before the creation of the world. What is more, our Earth emerged from the waters and then started to form; 71% of the Earth’s surface of made of water, similarly as 70% of the body mass of an adult and 80% of the volume of their brain is also made of water.

For nine months, till the birth, a child stays in the waters of their mother’s womb. When hoping to find life, one always looks for water, irrespectively whether it is in a dessert or on the planet of Mars. Water keeps the memory of our beginnings and shapes the reality in which we live. On everyday basis we are not aware of its spiritual and physical dimension. While reading of the Deluge, you might think that this was supposed to be some kind of punishment, although in fact it was an act of purification of the Earth and the way to return to its original perfection.

The Bible is full of images of water, to begin with the first words of the Book of Genesis. In Tanakh there are about 600 references to this element. One of the most poignant and beautiful images is presented in Ezekiel’s Vision:

“Behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth was illuminated with his glory”.  (Book of Ezekiel, 43:2)

It is said – and rightly so – that Jerusalem located outside the main trading routes, without oil, gas and all natural resources was founded because of its supreme value – the “holiness”. Probably yes. Given, however, the fact that before the “holiness” started to define it, the settlement had existed there for more than 6000 years, i.e. centuries  before king David conquered the fortress of Jebusites – Zion (Zion had already existed here!), and king Salomon erected the first Temple on the Mountains of Moria. Water has been and still is truly holy here, as without it, there would be no madman tempted to settle a city on the border to the Judaean Dessert. For thousands of years, the only source of (holy) water for Jerusalem was the Gihon Spring. Until today, it has been running its waters, although the times when it supported the life in the city has been long gone.

Today, there are almost 900,000 people living in Jerusalem, so they would not be able to survive without new water intakes. Nevertheless, when you want to reach the true origins of the existence of “the city of one God and three religions”,  you should return to the Gihon Spring and walk in the darkness through the tunnel dug more than  2.700 years ago, upon the order of King Hezekiah, to reach the Pool of Siloam.

The Pool of Siloam was rediscovered not a very long time ago, as late as in 2004. It seems surprising that this most significant water system in Jerusalem is mentioned in  Tanakh only once (Book of Isaiah, 8:6) and three times in the Gospel (Luke – 13:4, John – 9:7,11 ).  This does not change the fact that, for centuries, the system played a fundamental role supplying Jerusalem with water, filling invariably the Pool of  Siloam, which assisted all the believers in fulfilling their obligation to purify themselves.

There is a significant relationship between the “water of life” (Majim Chajim) springing from the Gihon Spring, the Pool of Siloam, which is the potent mikveh of the size of two Olympic swimming pools and the Temple of Jerusalem.

On the last day of the Pilgrims’ festival of Sukkot, an archpriest, surrounded by priests, Levites playing silver trumpets, and a crowd of the believers, would go down from the Temple Mount to the Pool of Siloam and drew water from it with a golden vessel. Then, in a joyful  procession, he returned to the Temple  and poured the water together with some wine on the altar for burnt offerings asking God for the gift of rain and blessing for the people of Israel. This was a joyful time, called Simchat Beit Hashoavah (see how this could look like). He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing (Simchat Beit Hashoavah) – Talmud says –  has never seen rejoicing in his life. (Tractate Sukkah 5:1)

Israel is not Poland, where there is have plenty of water. A prayer for the rain  – Tefillat HaGeshem in the place where desserts occupy 60% of the land surface, has always meant a lot and it has been included to Amidah – the most important prayer of the flowers of Judaism, apart from Shema Israel.  When the ritual of offering sacrifices at the altar of the Temple was stopped, this function was taken over by Amidah.

Water, like the Earth, is a gift from God to the people, whilst God is the gardener, watering the garden of creation: For I will pour water on the thirsty land,   and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow,  like poplar trees by flowing streams. (Book of Isaiah, 44;3-4).

The rite of drawing water, the obligation of ritual purification in water, blessing after washing hands before a meal, a prayer for the rain, a number of significant biblical events connected with water, such as the meeting between Jacob and Rachel at a well, saving Moses from the waters of the Nile, the waters of the Nile changed into blood, crossing the Sea of Reeds, drawing water from the rock, round-shaped Miriam’s well, drawing water from the source of salvation (Book of Isaiah, 12:3), in Ezekiel’s Vision (Book of Ezekiel, 47) water squirted from under the threshold and from the gate of the Temple, like from a spring; finally the Justice flowing like water and righteous actions like a stream that never dries up (Amos 5;24 )…, all these point to an organic relationship between Life /Chaim and Water/Majim.

The plentitude of water will be the blessing of future posterities, and its lack will be their curse. God has nothing to do with this any longer. Only a villain poisons the blood circulation of our planet, spits to a well and destroys our common Earth with greed. It is only a human.

The prayer Tefillat HaGeshem recalling biblical characters is full of supplications to God, asking Him not to stop waters and to give us their plentitude. Waters flow for plentitude, not for scarcity; for blessing and not for curse; for life and not for death.

The Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, to which I invite you during the scarcity of peace and curse of war, somehow despite the whole evil of the world, has always been and will always remain the Festival of Life.

4. Good

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return (Ecclesiastes, 11:1) is followed by the second verse of the same chapter says: Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

The Earth, with the predomination of dirty waters, melting glaciers, toxic air and eternal fire in the depths, is still a beautiful planet; and if it wasn’t for the greed of the primate mammals, and their completely natural desire to rule over the others, or their will to murder, fitting within the impeccable logic of hatred – the world would perhaps be one of those beautiful havens of peace on the dark ocean of the universe. However, peace has always been missing here – there has never been any peace and there will never be, on this insignificant planet of Earth, amongst these two-legged mammals with mysterious brains, the only organs of sincere reflection, as whatever is created by humans is only apparently beautiful, useful only for some time, and progressive until the moment of its inevitable extermination.

During the memorable Deluge, waters washed away from the surface of the Earth almost all the living creatures. Contrary to God’s hopes, this was almost for nothing, as only 4370 years have passed, and, once again, we face a disaster of our own accord. I do not mean here the wars, fires, violations or persecutions – as in the history of the human kind these are by no means exceptional or new: it is quite the opposite. What I mean here is solely the good and the beauty of the plant of Earth, which is avidly destroyed by the stupid human being. However unreasonable this may sound, I pray for the rain which will again wash and purify the Earth, as even this might last “a while”, still, the end of all flesh as come before me (Genesis, 6:13). Let the Earth survive.

There are few of us and there is little we can do. However – as long as we are here – we can do anything, provided that our internal awareness brings us closer to the greater awareness which makes the sense of the universe.

We still have the privilege of choosing between good and evil. The grain, which the Ecclesiastes talks about, is nothing else but a piece of good, an act of kindness, a conscious act of compassion, something between mercy and obligation. It has nothing in common with empty words, pathological self-promotion in all kinds of media, political hypocrisy or religious self-righteousness. It becomes imperceptible like a crumb of bread and, like bread, it is necessary to live on.

This trivial comparison between life and the river of times, gradually gains the ultimate significance for me: 34 years ago we laid the grains across the waters. Let me admit – there was no specific intention about it or nor were there any expectations that years after, the Festival would transform itself into common good. For many out of these few persons, the Festival has become the grain and the source. The Torah and the values of the dignified life, inscribed in it, bear fruit with the simplest deeds, fulfilling micwot, as this much more beneficial for the existence of the Earth and the harmony of elements than the violent rage and aggressive shouting of the native climate protectors and cynical advocates of the extermination narrative. We will not save the rivers and oceans without starting off with the cleanliness of our own sources.

When I read the words of Psalm 24 – The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it, I first and foremost think of the power of nature which has the state of awareness which is completely unattainable for humans. I believe in the causative power of Thought, both in the universe and in our modest microcosm encapsulated in the vulnerable vessel of human body.

The Festival and everything that belongs to it, allowed me to reach beyond the narrow area of origin, nationality, religion and identity. For many years it has been leading me upstream until the moment when I crossed the threshold of Jerusalem and stooped over the Gihon Spring. So, please do not be surprised that I feel closer to the light circle of the world and to those who live there with the springing source of life in its center rather than to the round world of memories with a dried well in its middle.

This year, thirty four years have passed since the First Jewish Culture Festival was held in Krakow, supplied from the spring of the living Jewish culture.

How beautiful the Pool of Bethesda was, whilst its ruins are still beautiful todays!

Alas – there is not a single drop of water in it and when pouring rains come, the pool changes into a muddy and silty pond. Within the past years I have never drawn water from the pond. When thirsty, I knelt down and bent over the spring. I am not among those who celebrate dead waters. I am and I will always be faithful to the source

Just before the estuary to the primeval sea of nothingness, the flow of the river slows down, and then you have a moment to look back.

Who knows? – perhaps on the dark background of the waters, you will see a rainbow of eternity, the reflection of the good which you made on your way, which will your frightened heart with a thin light of hope.

God is the only thing worth living for.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight.
This is the only reason for the Festival to be

Janusz Makuch
founder and director
Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow