I am a bit bewildered about the “quality” of water. Sometimes it’s associated with base passion or indulgence. Yet it is also very widely associated with the Torah. What is the resolution of this seeming contradiction?
You are right; water is described as having both qualities.
Water is often associated with physical pleasures in which one may indulge as passions. In such cases, a person is easily swept up in the current of his desires, which inundate him with temptation. And one who quenches the thirst of desire by drinking from the cup of these tantalizing pleasures feels as if they invigorate him with life, while in fact, they drown him!
Yet, water is widely used as a metaphor for Torah. Thus, the Torah is referred to as “mayim chaim”, living waters. And we are encouraged to imbibe this Torah knowledge, as in the verse, “Ho, all who thirst, go to water” (Is. 55:1), where Rashi explains that water is Torah. Additionally, the Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) remarks, “Why is Torah compared to water? In order to teach that just as water flows from a high place and travels to a low place, so does Torah depart from the haughty and reside by the humble.”
The underlying reason why water is compared to these seemingly contradictory qualities is that they are both associated with life. The contradiction arises from the fact that one is related to physical life, while the other is related to spiritual life.
For obvious reasons, water is the basis for physical, organic life. And in His great mercy, G‑d made the acts required for life, such as procreation and eating and drinking, to be simultaneously enjoyable. This is the basis for the association of water with physical pleasures.
Similarly, just as water engenders and sustains physical life, the Torah is the source and substance of spiritual life. And as with the acts of physical sustenance, in His great mercy, G‑d also made the pursuit of spiritual life, such as learning Torah and performing mitzvot, to be spiritually pleasurable and fulfilling.
And since both the material and spiritual originate from G‑d, the resolution of their seeming contradiction lies in the fusion of the two. For G‑d does not prohibit physical pleasure; He created it as part of preserving the life He imparts and desires! Rather one must divorce pleasure from forbidden indulgence and wed it to the ways of Torah and the service of G‑d.
This seeming contradiction is resolved perhaps most clearly in a verse which itself hints at the dual quality of water and the way to conjoin them for good. The verse states (Prov. 20:5), “Counsel in man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw [literally, lift] it out.” Extending the literal meaning of the verse, Rabbi Chaim of Chernovitz (1760-1816) in Sidduro Shel Shabbat (Vol. 1; 5:1:14) explains the verse as follows: The lower waters of desire counsel deep within one’s heart, but a wise man will elevate and conjoin them to the upper waters of Torah. In this way, the waters of physical desire flow into the sea of Torah whose current directs one toward G‑d, the Source.