Bitter-Sweet: B’shalach & Tu Bishvat

. משהו חדש! לשמחתי, הבלוג שלי על פרשת השבוע בעברית, מתפרסם גם באתר של מרכז חדרים, חיפה

כנסו כאן:

This week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, begins with the Children of Israel leaving Egypt after the long slavery and the Ten Plagues. They find themselves chased by Pharaoh and his chariots; then they finally reach the Sea of Reeds, where a miracle is performed for them – the sea splits in two and the children of Israel pass on dry land. For meritting the great miracle, they sing the song of the sea. They continue their journeys in the desert, receiving the manna from heaven, and his slav, a kind of fowl, following their complaints of hunger. In Mara they lack water, and Moses strikes the rock. Finally, Amalek attacks Israel “from behind.” Moses raises his hands up, supported by Aaron and Hur, and the Children of Israel win their war.

This section is usually called near Tu B’Shvat, knick-named ‘the birthday of the trees’, which this year is celebrated this coming Monday, January 17, 2022. Coincidentally, or not, a tree also appears in our parsha. And so we read (Exodus 15:23-25):

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because they were bitter; that is why it was named Marah (literally “bitter”). And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to Hashem and Hashem directed him to a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet…

For three days the Children of Israel went without water. We’re having a hard time getting through just one day like this! And here, after a course of three days, wow, what a beauty, water! But the greater the joy, the greater the disappointment. The Children of Israel fill their vessels, expecting that first sip after days of walking in heat and thirst, but they immediately realize the mistake: the taste of water is bitter as wormwood. What to do?

Now Moses could say, ‘Oh really, so the water is a little bitter, so what? What can I do’… or alternatively, blame them: ‘Why are you complaining again?’ And preach: ‘Bitter water is good for you! It builds a strong character! You will learn to be thankful for the gifts of the good God ‘… but instead, God instructs Moses to throw a tree into the water, which causes the bitter water to turn sweet.

Ibn Ezra, one of the famous commentators during the Golden Age in Spain who also dealt with mathematics, astrology and astronomy (1092-1164, and after whom the Abenezra Crater on the moon was named!) wrote that “this is the tree we did not know what it was. It was a pure miracle” … indeed our sages discussed at length the question, what kind of tree was it? Maybe an olive, a pomegranate, a willow, a fig tree? But they all agreed that it was a bitter tree. Midrash Tanchuma (complied in Israel in the 9th century) tells:… Moses thought G-d will tell him to throw in some honey or a (sweet) dried fig, which would sweeten the water, but G-d said, ‘Moses, my ways are different form yours. Now you need to learn, as it is written, “and he directed him”, not, he showed him, but directed, relating to the verb to teach, as teaching Moses of Hashem’s ways.

It turns out that there is not only a need to sweeten the water (since the water could have been sweet in the first place!), but also an educational moment. What is the meaning of the commentary? Beyond what we have seen so far, about the miraculous  in our lives, about G-d Almighty who can do anything, and about the fact that from something bitter can come out something sweet, if we read the verse again: because they were bitter, we realize that “they” possibly addresses the Children of Israel themselves! That is, the children of Israel could not drink the water, because they, the Children of Israel, were the ones who were bitter!.

In the transition from slavery to freedom then and now, there are many challenges. Some depend on external forces, such as an Almighty who subdues the world’s most powerful nation with miraculous sings and wonders. But, we cannot really go out to freedom without a consistent and dedicated inner work that will free us from the bitterness within us.

Shabbat Shalom!

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