The Bitter and the Sweet
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
Names – of a place or a person – are significant in Judaism. In Hebrew the word for name is “Shem”, which is the root of the word Neshama, soul, because a name of a person or place represents their essence.
In this week’s Torah portion, right after the inspiring splitting of the Red Sea and the outpour of singing from the men and women of Israel, the Torah tells us an interesting story. “Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah.” (Shemot, 15, 22)
The name Mara means bitter, so it seems very simple, the place was called Mara bitter because it’s waters were bitter. I believe that Jewish wisdom is teaching us a deeper lesson here as well.
When I was a rabbinical student, studying in Kollel in Jerusalem’s Old City, my friends and I used the lunch break to catch up with one another. I remember one day, we were all sitting together, and one of our friends comes in and starts venting how he was up all night with his child that wasn’t feeling well. We all jumped into the conversation, letting him know how we are all just as miserable as he is, with many little children at home we each had what to complain about.
Then one of the guys stopped the conversation abruptly, reminding us that we have nothing to complain about. One of our friends in the group, who thank God was not there, has been married for a number of years by now, but unfortunately was not blessed with any children yet. “We should all be saying thank you that we have children that keep us up at night. Let’s look at the big picture. Why are we sitting here complaining?” His words were so clear and sharp that they resonate with me to this day.
The Jews were finally free! The sea just split, the Egyptians drowned, and they survived. It’s all over, they are never going back, and they have everything going for them. Yet three days go by and they start complaining. They themselves became bitter, and that’s what led them to a bitter place. How many times do we enter a bitter state of mind instead of focusing on the big picture and understanding the blessings we have in our lives?
The verse describes how they came to Mara, and they couldn’t drink from the water, because they were bitter. Perhaps the Torah is hinting that they were bitter, not just the water. That is why the remedy of sweetening of the water was through a bitter tree, to illustrate that sweetness is not a result of sweet things happening to us all the time, rather a shift in our mindset, a focus on the blessings in our lives.
We are blessed to live in a generation of an abundance of wealth. Yet for some reason, many of us have a tendency to complain. Yes, there are hardships and challenges, but many times the bitterness and focus on the negativity, that itself is what makes certain situations bitter. Jewish wisdom teaches us: focus on the big picture, on the great things we have in our lives life, then even the bitterness of the tree can turn the bitter water and make them sweet.