Past Weekly Shabbat Message
Rabbi Dovid Saks
(Torah Portion Beshalach) A Location Named Bitter
G-d miraculously split the Red sea on behalf of the Jewish nation and drowned the Egyptian army that pursued them.
The Torah then relates that the Jews continued their journey in the desert and after traveling three days could not find water. Then, “They arrived at Marah, but could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter. Therefore they named it Marah.”
Some people complained to Moshe saying, “What shall we drink?” Moshe cried out to G-d and G-d showed him a tree, which he threw into the water and it became sweet. The Torah goes on to relate that at Marah, Moshe taught the Jews various laws of the Torah.
I’d like to focus on this place they called Marah. The word Marah in Hebrew means bitter.
Quick research showed me that there are only two places in the US that have the word Bitter as their name. (i.e. Bitter Springs, AZ). Bitter, is obviously not a very popular name for a place.
Why did the Jews call the place Marah – because of the bitter water, when in fact, the waters became sweetened through Moshe’s intervention? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to call the place, Matok – sweet, rather than Marah?
More so, the Medrash relates that the waters of Marah were sweet all along. They only turned bitter when the Jews arrived.
Before we respond to this question, let’s pay attention to the significance of the three days of travel that led them to Marah.
Our Sages tell us that this story can be understood on a deeper level. During the three days that the Jews spent traveling from the Red sea they had no water, means, they were bereft of the study of Torah – which is compared to water.
After three days, they came to a place where there was water, meaning Torah. They were taught Torah, yet it came across to them as something bitter.
They immediately came to Moshe to complain about its bitterness. Moshe cried out to G-d and G-d responded by providing Moshe with a tree branch. Torah is also compared to trees, which means that Moshe added a new dimension of clarity of Torah. Moshe explained the Torah in a way that they could understand, appreciate and enjoy its sweetness.
Because of this episode in the desert, our tradition to read the Torah in the Synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbos, was instituted– so that three days should not go by that a Jew does not hear or study the words of Torah.
So why did they call the place bitter and not sweet?
Rebbe Yehoshua Leib Diskin o.b.m. explains that the waters in Marah were always sweet and they never became bitter. The only reason the water/Torah tasted bitter was because the Jews’ ‘taste buds’ were warped and they lacked appreciation for the Torah they were taught, since three days passed without them being nourished with Torah. With G-d’s assistance, Moshe was able to repair their confusion by engaging them with the deeper essence of Torah. The Jews immediately recognized its sweetness.
Had they called the name of this place, sweet, someone along the road of our history who had been distant from Torah for some time, and upon reconnecting did not experience or feel its sweetness, might feel that this was due to a flaw in the product. Therefore the Jews specifically called the place where they were introduced to Torah, as Marah – bitter, to demonstrate that Torah may taste bitter at first; however, with time, perseverance, an open mind, and studying from traditional sources, its sweetness will come forth!
Wishing you a restful, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid and Malki Saks