This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Baldness, Bears and Bottled Water*

News Item:

May 2000. Pollution in the water-supply of Walkerton, Ontario, leads to the spread of the e-coli bacteria, resulting in widespread illness, and several deaths. One year later, in April-May 2001, residents of North Battleford Saskatchewan discover that their water supply is infected with the deadly cryptosporidium parasite contained in their water supply.

In so many ways, the world seemed a simpler place back when I was an undergraduate. The Good Guys and the Bad Guys were much easier to recognize, and it was not just a matter of the colours of their respective yarmulkes.

Take, for example, the environmental movement. In one corner we had the idealistic Common Folk struggling to keep their lakes and rivers clean. Opposite them were the nefarious forces of Big Business, ruthlessly lacking all ideals or responsibility, and willing to pour endless barrels of industrial waste into our air and water for the sake of a few pennies more profit.

In recent times, the contrasts have become much harder to distinguish. There is hardly a major corporation that is not insisting that its products are the most easily recyclable and the friendliest to the environment. Where it was once considered fashionable to avoid the polluted liquids that flow from our faucets in favour of bottled spring-water, it is now becoming evident that much of that bottled water is no purer than the kitchen-sink variety.

In Israel, where each year's economic fortunes are bound tightly to the levels of its rainfall, urgent cries are heard seasonally to hurry up and invest in alternative water sources before the next major drought. In response, we are assured that this is no more than an artificial panic that is spearheaded by Big Business interests who stand to profit greatly from the subsidized construction of huge and inefficient desalination plants.

In Canada, our news reports are increasingly filled with accounts of communities being poisoned or infected by their local drinking water.

All of this environmental confusion comes to mind when we look at an odd midrashic passage in the Talmud. It involves the prophet Elisha, one of the more enigmatic and vexatious of Biblical heroes.

As related in the Book of Kings, the first mission to which Elishah was summoned after the departure of his mentor, Elijah, was to solve a water shortage that was plaguing Jericho at the time. In his typically inscrutable fashion, the prophet ended the crisis by pouring salt into the local spring. This unorthodox procedure achieved excellent results.

At this point, we should have expected the local citizenry to be overflowing with gratitude for their benefactor. While this might have been the attitude of the general adult population, it did not extend to the local children, who were more concerned with taunting the prophet about his bald head.

Unfortunately, Elishah was not the sort of person whom you should antagonize in this way. As the Bible goes on to recount, "he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty-two children of them."

Now, this was obviously an overreaction to a few juvenile insults. Predictably, the rabbis of the Midrash tried to interpret the story in a way that was more religiously and morally palatable.

They approached this task in a variety of ways. Some of them, for example, shifted the blame onto the adults who had rudely allowed their distinguished guest to leave town without an appropriate escort. Others proposed more creative ways of reading the Hebrew text, and derived from it that Elisha's taunters were not children at all, but wicked and faithless adult delinquents, people with unsavoury backgrounds who were guilty of an assortment of heinous sins.

As to their making fun of his baldness, this detail was also understood by the rabbis in unexpected ways. According to some of Talmudic sages, they were really jeering at Elisha and saying "Go away, because you have made this place 'bald' for us."

The background to this episode, as elucidated by Rashi, is that certain business interests were making a handsome profit from the environmental crisis. As long as the water shortage continued, there was a lucrative market for the bottled water that they were selling. By cleaning up the rivers, Elisha had dealt a serious blow to the interests of the Bottled Water lobby. This was what the Jericho Chambre of Commerce really had in mind when they picketed the prophet and accused him of destroying the mainstay of the local economy, leaving the town metaphorically "bald."

I think the story has great cinematic potential. I envision agent Elisha played by Steven Seagal or Arnold Schwartzeneger, aided by his well-trained team of bear commandos, battling hired goons in the pay of the multinational bottled-water cartel.

Incidentally, this story became the basis for one of the most picturesque, but misused, expressions in modern Hebrew.

In its efforts to magnify the miraculous dimensions of the Elisha's exploits, one of the rabbis in the Talmud claimed that the prophet had done far more than cause the bears to emerge from the forest and gobble up their victims. In fact, according to this sage, prior to Elisha's curse not only were there no bears in the vicinity, but there was not even a forest! Both elements were supernaturally conjured up specially for the occasion, a miracle within a miracle! Rashi tersely incorporates this idea into his commentary on the Biblical passage: "No bears and no forest."

In modern Hebrew the expression "no bears and no forest" was misconstrued as if to imply that the whole episode never actually occurred. It is the most widely used way of expressing total denial, in a sense that is analogous to such English idioms as "No way José!"

This is precisely the kind of dismissive response that has often greeted the alarmists who voiced their concerns for the safety of our water supply.

We can only hope that the problem has not yet reached a state where it can only be solved by a miracle. If some of our policy-makers have their way, we might see the day when there are not bears, no forest and no water.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressMay 31, 2001, pp. 8-9.