“G-d: The Source of Sweetness”
(updated and revised from B’shalach 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

Despite the fact that the Israelites had just witnessed the great destruction of the Egyptians, they show little faith, and begin to complain to Moses saying (Exodus 15:24): מַה נִּשְׁתֶּה “What shall we drink?!” Moses immediately cries out to G-d, who shows Moses a branch, a bitter branch, which he throws into the water. Miraculously (Exodus 15:25) וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם the waters became sweet. But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, the Torah records enigmatically: שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ, 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 neglected to engage in Torah study for the three days.  Rashi, cites the Mechilta, and Sanhedrin 56b, that maintain, 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 (purity and impurity), and the 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 and will of G-d. G-d who says that sweet should be sweet, can declare as well that bitter shall be bitter, and the opposite.

The enigmatic phrase, (Exodus 15:25) שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ, 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, in hindsight or when inspected with greater precision, is often discovered to be in fact sweet. This principle is exemplified by the three doctrines given to the Jews 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 civil laws and the ordinances that were given at Marah certainly result in many restrictions, limiting people’s freedoms. Acquisitions and business deals that do not conform to the strict letter of these laws are declared invalid. But, those who observe the restrictions are never impoverished. In fact, they are often enriched–enriched by being saved from the possible sin of theft, and enriched by the reward they receive for abiding by G-d’s dictates.

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

A meaningful story about the perception of good and evil is told by Rabbi Kalman Packouz, z”l, of Aish HaTorah:

A King in Africa was out hunting. His companion and gun bearer was a person whose attitude toward 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 into prison.

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 jailhouse 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 these many months in prison,” 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 to us as “bad” or “negative” ends up being a blessing. That’s why we must not invest too much time and energy worrying or regretting. For what we initially 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. And, as the Psalmist says (Psalms 34:9): טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ, כִּי טוֹב השׁם, Taste and see, that G-d is good.

May you be blessed.

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the Shira, the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

On Wednesday night and Thursday, January 27th and 28th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.