“G-d: The Source of Sweetness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, immediately after the splitting of the sea and the great salvation, the People of Israel march in the wilderness of Shur for three days, but find no water. Finally the people arrive at a place called Marah, where water is found, but it is bitter.

Despite the fact that the Israelites had seen the great destruction of the Egyptians three days earlier, they show little faith, and begin to complain to Moshe saying (Exodus 15:24): “Mah nish’teh?” What shall we drink? Moshe immediately cries out to G-d, who shows Moshe a branch, a bitter branch, which he throws into the water. Miraculously (Exodus 15:25) “Va’yim’ta’koo ha’mayim,” the waters became sweet. But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, the Torah tells us enigmatically: “Sham sam loh chok u’mish’pat, v’sham nee’sah’hoo.” There [in Marah] G-d established for the People of Israel a decree and ordinances, and there He tested it.

The commentators explain that the lack of water was due to the fact that because of the arduous journey, the People of Israel had failed to engage in Torah study for the three days. Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Bible (1040-1105), cites the Mechilta and Sanhedrin 56b, that in Marah, in order to preoccupy the People until they received the Ten Commandments, G-d gave the Jews some of the basic laws of the Torah: the laws of Sabbath, the laws of the red heifer, and basic civil laws.

What, is the meaning and message of the miracle of sweetening the water? Our commentators suggest that the Torah wishes to convey to humankind that ultimately there is really no such thing as “bitter” or “sweet.” Whatever we experience exists merely at the behest of G-d. G-d who says that sweet should be sweet can declare as well that bitter shall be bitter.

The enigmatic phrase, (Exodus 15:25) “Sham sam loh chok u’mish’pat, v’sham nee’sah’hoo,” There He established for the People of Israel a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested it– is interrelated to the sweetening of the water with the bitter branch.

What mortals often perceive as bitter, when inspected with greater precision is often discovered to be really sweet. This principle may be exemplified by these examples cited in Marah: Shabbat, the Red Heifer and the basic system of laws. So, for instance, while it is true that Jews technically “deprive” themselves by not doing work on Shabbat, in fact, the Jewish People draw much sustenance from this “deprivation.” From Shabbat comes forth blessings and strength for the rest of the days of the week. Similarly, the paradox of the Red Heifer–all those involved in the preparation of the heifer are rendered impure, while those who are sprinkled with its waters are purified. And finally, the laws and the ordinances that were given at Marah certainly result in restrictions limiting our freedoms. Because of these laws, acquisitions and deals that are not done according to strict justice are invalidated. But, those who observe the restrictions are not impoverished, they are in fact enriched–enriched by being saved from the possible sin of theft, and enriched by the reward they receive for abiding by G-d’s command.

In short, because of all the structure and the regulations that abound in Judaism, we often fail to see the goodness of G-d. But, the regulations are truly a source of goodness.

A meaningful story is told by Rabbi Kalman Packouz of Aish HaTorah:

A King in Africa was out hunting. His companion and gun bearer was a person whose attitude towards life was “Everything is for the good. Things couldn’t be better.” While on a hunt, the gun bearer erred in loading the King’s rifle, causing a misfire, which blew off the King’s thumb. After the accident, the gun bearer exclaimed as was his custom, “This is for the good.” The King replied angrily, “No, it’s not!” and had the gun bearer thrown in to jail.

A year passed, and the King was once again hunting. This time he was captured by cannibals. They were ready to cook the King and serve him for dinner, when they noticed the missing thumb. Being superstitious, the cannibals refused to eat a person who was less than whole. So they let the King go!

Immediately, the King went to the prison to free his gun bearer. “You were right,” said the King, “This was for the good! I am so terribly sorry that I sent you to jail.” “No,” replied the gun bearer, “Being in jail was also for the good.”

“What do you mean? Look how you have suffered,” said the King. “Yes,” responded the gun bearer, “But if I wasn’t in jail…I would have been with you!”

It is so very important to train oneself, writes Rabbi Packouz, to look positively upon life’s situations. So many times what appears as “bad” or “negative” ends up being a blessing. That’s why we dare not invest too much time and energy worrying or regretting. For what we think is to our detriment, may very well prove to be for our benefit. Remember, G-d who creates the bitter, can easily transform the bitter into sweet.

As the Psalmist says (Psalms 34:9): “Ta’amu, ur’uh,” Taste and see, that G-d is good.

May you be blessed.