Parshas Beshalach: Bitter Waters or Bitter People?

Parshas Beshalach: The Journey to Freedom.  In this week’s parsha, we cross the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, with the Children of Israel; we sing shira, songs of praise and thanks to G-d, along with them for their salvation and the drowning of wicked Pharaoh and his army in the churning sea waters; we stand by and witness the miraculous manna descending from Heaven for the very first time in our desert history; we battle with Amalek at Refidim, as they are weakened, but not-yet-defeated.

In an action packed parsha of fear, faith, song, worries, battles and triumphs, there is an incident recorded at a place called Marrah that deserves our attention.  Immediately after kriyas Yam Suf and the shira they sang, the Torah tells us that the Jews traveled onwards for a journey of three days, without finding water.  Finally, they arrived in Marrah, yet could not drink the water there… וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה–וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה, כִּי מָרִים הֵם; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמָהּ, מָרָה – And they came to Marrah, and they could not drink the water from Marrah, because they were bitter; therefore, its name was called Marrah (Shemos 15:23).

And they could not drink the water כִּי מָרִים הֵם – for they were bitter.  Is the verse referring to the  waters of Marrah, or the people at Marrah…?   

The following answer is one of my favorite insights into this week’s parsha, and I share it with you as Nechama Leibowitz a’h taught it. 

Was it the water, or the people?  To answer this question, Nechama Leibowitz would teach the following Medrash (Medrash Tanchuma Yashan Vayakhel 9): Rabbi Levi explained, What is the meaning of כִּי מָרִים הֵם – for they were bitter? For they were bitter – the generation was bitter in its deeds!  Everything depends on the person – if he wishes, he will control himself; and if he wishes, he will become embittered.

She would then note that, “The waters were indeed bitter, but were it not for the fact that the people themselves were embittered, they would not have been disturbed or demoralized by the unpleasant taste of the water.”

It is sobering and powerful to note that the waters were bitter and intolerable to them because their attitude was bitter.  As is the way of water, it reflected what was manifested in people.  The bitter waters that they could not drink were a reflection of their negativity that prevented them from enjoying the water. 

To illustrate this teaching, Nechama Leibowitz would then relate the following powerful story:

Last spring, a week before Pesach, I received notification of a package waiting for me, so I went along to the post office.  There are still post offices in Jerusalem manned by only one clerk, and so there was a long line of people waiting to be served.  I stood in line, waiting behind two old people who came to collect their National Insurance allowance.  This is normally handed out at the beginning of the month, but due to the holiday, the State was handing the money in the week before Pesach, out of consideration for the pensioners. 

Well, the clerk requested that the old man in front of me show his ID card.  The man barked furiously, “Don’t I have anything else to think about besides my identity card?!  Typical of this country; it’s all bureaucracy.  You’re never treated decently, they just make trouble for you everywhere you go!  It’s simply appalling!”

The clerk apologized and asked the man if he at least remembered the ID number.  Even more enraged, the man began yelling: “That’s the last thing I need right now!  What, do I have to remember my ID number off by heart!?  What on earth are you thinking?  The demands of the State!  Who wants all these headaches?  Everything becomes worthless in this country – money, apartments, people!  The only option is to emigrate.  No other country in the world has these kinds of hassles!”

Next in line was an old woman, also getting on in years.  Quietly she waited.  Calmly, she passed over her ID card for inspection.  Serenely, she watched the clerk count and hand over her allowance.  Then she thanked him warmly, “Thank you so much!  What a great country we have here!  How wise of the ministers to allow the elderly an honorable livelihood – you no longer have to roam the streets or degradingly stick out your hand.  Well done to all the clerks, and to the entire Jewish State – and a chag kasher v’samayach to all of Israel!  May you all live long lives!”

Then she began to search for something on the counter.  The clerk asked her, “Do you need anything else?”  “The charity box, where is the charity box?” she asked.  The clerk handed her the box and she counted her money and gave a tenth of it to charity.  “You should put the box in the middle, otherwise someone might forget to give,” she commented to the clerk, and with a thousand blessing, she left the post office.

Concluded Nechama, “They could not drink the water at Mara for they were bitter.  Everything depends on the temperament of the person” (NL Teacher and Bible Scholar, Urim publications, 2009, p. 88-90).

We too must cross many proverbial churning seas in our journey of life.  We too hunger for food and thirst for water.  We too depend on G-d to provide for us, as He provided for our forefathers with miraculous manna.  And we too must battle the unceasing enemy of Amalek.  As they journey, we journey. 

And as we journey, it behooves us to remember the waters of Marrah, the site of the undrinkable bitter waters – וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה–וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה, כִּי מָרִים הֵם.

At every station in life, with every going and coming, as we cross the seas, deserts and battles in our own lives – personal and national – we must be sure that the waters of life are sweet, for it all depends on the person. 

אדרבה, תן בליבנו שנראה כל אחד מעלת חברנו ולא חסרנם – Please, Hashem, put in our hearts that we should see the positive attributes and beauty in our friends, and not their lackings…(R’ Elimelch of Lizhensk, 1717-1787).

May we be wise enough, humble enough, loving enough and brave enough, to see the beauty, the sweetness and the goodness in ourselves, in all those around us, in the world of HKB”H and ultimately, in all the gifts He bestows upon us and the infinite and boundless kindness He does for us.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


1 Comment
  • Lillian
    Posted at 17:53h, 09 February

    Yes yes it’s all in the attitude!!
    Positive or negative!!