Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
Many refer to this Shabbat as Shabbat Shira – the Sabbath of Song – on account of Shirat Hayam – the song of exhilaration sung by the Israelites at the Reed Sea, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. The time for celebration and joy has arrived, and the people burst out in their magnificent song.
After the celebrations subside, the nation continues its trek through the desert, stopping at a place where no water could be found, which they consequently called marah – “the bitter [place]”. The nation complains – justifiably, this time – “‘What shall we drink?!’” [ibid., 15:24].
Moses cries out to God, and the Almighty responds: “God instructed [Moses] concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet. There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.” [ibid., 15:25].
Several questions come to mind concerning the wood, the water and the statute. What was it about the wood that caused it to sweeten the water? Did it have special qualities? Was it miraculous, or was this a natural phenomenon with which Moshe and the Israelites were simply unfamiliar? Finally, what is the connection between the sweetened water and the statutes and ordinances mentioned at the end of the verse?
With regard to our question about the wood itself, the Mishnaic sages, who lived during the first centuries of the Common Era, suggest several possibilities. Some say that it was the wood of the willow tree, while others claim it was olive wood or an oleander plant. These sages had clearly chosen the most bitter plant species they knew of, to demonstrate that the water wasn’t sweetened because of the wood’s physical properties.
Moshe did not use sugar or other natural sweeteners to make the water more palatable. To the contrary – he sought out something bitter. In the words of our sages, “Let us see how divergent the ways of flesh and blood are from the ways of Hashem. For creatures of flesh and blood, sweetness cures bitterness, but this is not the case for the One who Spoke and the world came to be. For him, bitterness cures bitterness” [Mechilta D’Rabbi Bar Yochai, Chapter 15].
How can we explain the difference between how man cures his ailments and how Hashem cures man’s ailments? Upon revisiting this verse, we discover a unique Hebrew word that the Torah uses to direct Moshe’s attention to this mysterious tree: “God instructed him [“vayorehu”] concerning a piece of wood.” [Ex. 15:25]. In Hebrew, the word lehorot has two denotations: it could mean to demonstrate something specific, or to have someone study something he or she is meant to master. This Hebrew root is also the source of the words moreh (“teacher”), horeh (“parent”), and Torah.
We learn from this a fundamental lesson: We may be inclined to think that the alacrity of the water, just like life’s bitter moments, can be attributed to the scarcity of a physical substance that would make it drinkable. All too often, though, bitterness is not the physical taste left in our mouths, but rather something that exists in our minds.
In other words, it is precisely the attitude we take to reality that makes it bitter. Experiencing a difficult event can evokes certain harsh emotions, such as anger, pain, irritability, and more. If we would only entertain the thought, for just a moment, that this bitterness is precisely what opens new horizons for us and sets the stage for our personal growth, we would take a completely different approach to our reality.
This is why God instructs Moses to place a piece of bitter wood into the water – to have us understand that sometimes, it is by adding bitterness to bitterness that we can sweeten our lives.
This is perhaps the way we should understand the rest of the verse, which tells us about the establishment of a system of laws and statutes. The Torah does not specify what these laws are, and many different options are suggested by our Sages.
Nahmanides (“Ramban”, 13th Century Spain and Israel) justifiably questions all these explanations for why the Torah did not specify which laws and statutes with which it was concerned. He comments that the only reason that certain commandments were given to the Jewish people is “so that [God] could torment them when they were in the desert, and have them suffer from thirst and hunger, so that they could call out to Him, but not by complaining.
“Laws were made for them to live by regarding how one person is to love his neighbor; that the advice and direction of the elders are to be heeded; the nature of modesty that is to apply to how they conduct themselves in their tents with regard to women and children; and the behavior that is to be followed with respect to outsiders who may come to the camp in order to engage in commerce… ” [commentary on Exodus, 15:25].
According to Nahmanides, the Jews were given something beyond sweetened water: they received instructions on behavioral norms and statutes governing social order. Laws and ordinances may seem antithetical to the concept of liberty the nation has so longed for after centuries of servitude. This, however, is exactly what needs to change in our thought patterns. When Moses notices the anger and frustration expressed from deep within his people’s parched throats, he realizes that it was now time to instill laws and ethical norms.
The time had come to teach the nation how people should treat each other, how we are to treat people from other nations who come to trade with us, how we are to speak to God, and so on. It was time to teach them that liberty does not amount to lawlessness. To the contrary, lawlessness breeds bitterness.
When boundaries disappear, we are left with a bad taste in our mouths. If we want to taste the sweetness of liberty, we need to be highly aware of the morals liberty was meant to uphold. We cure this bitterness through a system of laws and ordinances that give our liberty a beautiful flavor.