The Meeting of the Waters

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Amazon River in Brazil boasts 2,500 varieties of fish. I wouldn’t recommend putting a hand in its opaque, café au lait colored waters, however. They’re not the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas where you can see right down to the white sand.  While these waters of the Amazon derive their color from the sandy banks and dense plant life that surround them, they are treacherous. Forget swimming if you are not a native. In fact, the Amazon River abounds with flesh-eating predators. There are, for example, fearsome black caimans with large heads and avaricious appetites (often 20 feet long, they have been called “alligators on steroids”); they’ll tackle anything as food, a leg here and an arm there, they’re not specific). Numerous other dangerous water species abound — ever-hungry fish or reptiles that would be be happy to take a chunk out of visitors to their territory (Source: Matthew Wells, “10 terrifying Creatures of the Amazon”).

Among them are the green Anaconda, reputed to be the largest snake in the world (29 feet long), who prefer the shallow waters where they can constrict and suffocate their victims; the Arapaima, with scary armored scales – and whose tongue also has teeth; Giant Otters, often referred to as “river wolves”; Bull Sharks whose powerful jaws make them one of the most feared attackers; Electric Eels who really kill their prey (hopefully not you!) with jolts of electricity; and Piranhas, primarily scavengers known for their feeding frenzies when they are really hungry. The most insidious fish, however, are the Candiros. These are small, parasitic, freshwater catfish. Do not, however secretly, urinate in the opaque waters of the Amazon, or these little demons will swim right into your urethra and lodge in the urinary tract. Since they have spines on their backs, it takes surgery to get them out.  

Of course, not all of the fish in the Amazon River are predators. Lots of them are prey (a subject I described in an earlier post). Amazingly, despite all the water creatures eager for human food, from time to time, locals can be seen fishing from the shore. If you gotta eat, you gotta eat, I guess. Or maybe they are familiar with the times when the carnivores will most likely be hungry. Sometimes the long arms of a favorite pet of the region, the furry sloth, will be hanging from the necks of these indigenous people. A human, it seems, is just as good as a tree for hanging out.

In any case, there are lots of fish in the Amazon river, and most of them are not flesh-eating. Lots of them prefer seafood to people. Actually, the many diverse species come from the merging of two or more rivers. This merging –when two bodies of water meet (sometimes one of them is a tributary) and then join to become one river — is called a confluence.  In the case of the Amazon River in Brazil, the meeting of the waters provides an amazing visual display – it is truly spectacular –as the two streams resist mixing their colors. As they approach one another, the contrast is striking: the dark-hued Rio Negro and the coffee-tone of the Amazon. They seem to like their own colors and don’t want a mixed marriage.

The Rio Negro is not really a black river, as its Spanish name would proclaim, but it is a dark color, classed among the blackwaters of the world. It is also a large body of water, in fact the largest tributary of the Amazon. As it enters the Amazon from the left, the Rio Negro insists on keeping its own dark color. So does the pale sandy Rio Solimoes, which continues to flow from the upper part of the Amazon River. They are so stubborn, these rivers. I watched in amazement as the two rivers continued to flow in their own streams, at their own levels (the Solimoes flows beside and below the Rio Negro), in their own preferred colors, without mixing. They maintain different temperatures, different speeds, different water density. The Rio Negro flows at near 2 kilometers per hour at a temperature of 28 degrees, while the Rio Solimoes flows between 4-6 miles per hour at a temperature of 22 degrees. They are different in the movement of air masses

Not only do the waters continue to be separatists in the same Amazon river for about six kilometers (3.7 miles), but they also contain different fish – different species — in each of the two streams. They do not mix either; they maintain their own levels in an “us” and “other” situation. If I were a joker, I would say “fishuation” that is very Talmudic since each “side” has a different point of view. The Talmud is full of rabbis disagreeing and maintaining their own position. Usually they find a middle ground.

But if they can’t, the Talmud also teaches that when two forces maintain an oppositional view and refuse to compromise, a third force is needed to “lift them up” from their folly. Two oppositional ideas can generate a third choice that they haven’t previously considered. That’s what happens in the Amazon River. A huge natural blockage, some six kilometers past their first meeting place near the Brazilian city of Manaus, impedes the river’s flow and crunches the two streams together like an oversize mix-master. After that, there are no more distinctive plumes traveling at their own levels, temperatures, and populations. The unfazed Amazon continues its journey – it’s one of the longest rivers in the world, rivaling the Nile — as a churning, united muddy brown. In its own way, it’s a beautiful, flowing middle ground.