> Weekly Torah Portion > Beginner > Brainstorming with Baars

Don't Complain Here

Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

Didn’t the Jewish people have a legitimate gripe about the lack of water in the desert?

This is the story of the Jewish people as they left Egypt:

"...And they went out to the Shur Desert, and they travelled for three days in the desert but did not find water. And they came to Marah, but could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter (that is why the place is called Marah, Ed. Note: Marah means bitter). Then the people complained to Moses saying, 'What will we drink?'" (Exodus 15:22-24)

* * *

Doesn't it seem reasonable that after three days in the desert the Jewish people are entitled to ask, "What will we drink?"

To understand this lesson it is important to appreciate that complaining is a big deal. Not only that, but it's probably true to say, no one ever thinks they are complaining.

So here's the question, what were they complaining about exactly? If you think they were complaining above not having water, you win a prize.

For being wrong.

Which is worse, to not have any water, or to have water that you cannot drink?

If you think they are the same, you win another one of those prizes.

The Jewish people can survive three days without water, without complaining, but practically no time when the water is undrinkable.

No-water and undrinkable water are not the same thing.

The problem is not the words themselves, it's when they were said.

Before they got to Marah it would not have been a complaint.

After they got to Marah, it is.

After they got to Marah and saw the water was undrinkable, they accused God of abandoning them.

This is the definition of complaining. When your children use the words of a request but the tone of "you hate me" then, it's not a request at all.

"Why can't I have another candy?"
"Why can't I stay out later?"
"Why do I have to..."

Those accustomed in the fine art of living with teenagers know these questions are not requests, they are accusations.

They are complaining. They are saying: "You are not on my side."

Why did the Jewish people think God had abandoned them?

They assumed that God would not bring them out of Egypt to a bitter lake. Similarly, our children really think, "If you really loved me you would let me eat all the ice cream, stay up really late, and have a nose stud, maybe two."

Why do kids think that?

Because up till then, you did everything they wanted, and made their life easy. In your mind, you are still doing that. The only reason you are sending them to school is for their good. But in their mind, it's not as easy as it used to be. They used to equate love with fun and easy, now you are trying to add another three words to the definition: good for them.

* * *


Complaining is adversarial. It starts with thinking you are not on my side.

However, being on your child's side does not mean doing or giving them whatever they want. This is a common parenting trap. We want our kids to feel we are on their side and so, mistakenly, we do whatever they want. However, making life easy for them so they will like us, is not being on their side.

God is obviously on the Jewish people's side, but the question remains, why did He take them to a bitter lake? The next verse tells what happened:

"...God showed him a tree, and after dropping it in the water it made the water sweet..." (Exodus 15:25)

So why make it so complicated? Wouldn't we save a lot of heartache if the water was sweet in the first place?

A Fundamental Principal of Life: God doesn't try to make our lives more difficult (we have politicians for that).

If the water is bitter, it's because not being so would have been worse.

Whatever way we think it should be, is always more problematic, than the way which we find.

If the water was not bitter, what would the Jewish people find in the middle of the desert?

If you answered, "A sweet oasis" we have another one of those prizes for you.

They would have found a very pleasant oasis with a large group of locals not too happy at seeing a few million thirsty Jews.

Not only was Marah vacant because it was bitter, and therefore no one was defending it. But God arranged it so that everyone knew not to go there. That's why the place was called "Bitter."

Doesn't it all make sense now. After three days in the desert they arrive at a vacant lake in the middle of the desert that has a secret code to turn the water drinkable.

In sum, we get used to everything, it's one of our great weaknesses. After 10 plagues, the Jews were used to God turning anything into anything. Without even asking.

"God takes care of us," they sang as they left Egypt.

Somehow they didn't get the memo, it's now time to grow up.

True, God takes care of us (just as much). True, you care for your children (just as much). But it's time for them to take some responsibility.

If this is sounding familiar, welcome to parenting. Till recently everything was done for your children, now it's up to them and they are not used to it.

This is what our teenagers are saying. Not in the words, anymore than the Jews said it in the words "What will we drink?" But between the words.

That doesn't mean you give them sweet water, breakfast in bed, free board and lodging forever. It means you have to hear what they are really saying and show them that neither you, nor life, is out to get them. Help them help themselves, to turn their water/lives sweet.

That is really being on their side.


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