Reflections – Beshalach
By Masorti Judaism
Parshat Beshalach always falls on the Shabbat before Tu b’shvat — the new year for the trees. In fact, a tree figures prominently in this week’s parsha. The first place that the children of Israel reach after leaving Egypt is Marah: “Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on to the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Mara, but they could not drink water from Mara because it was bitter; that is why it was named Mara. And the people grumbled against Moses saying ‘What shall we drink?’ He cried to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree. He threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There he set for them statute and judgment and there he put them to the test.” (Shemot 15:23-25)
Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch explains that the verse isn’t “but they could not drink water from Mara because it was bitter,” but rather, a more literal translation would be “could not drink the waters because they were bitter.” The water wasn’t bitter, the children of Israel were.
It reminds me of the important lesson I learned as a parent. Don’t try to reason with my children when they are over-tired. Or hungry. Everything will lead to an argument or crying. At these times, they see everything through a cranky lens. So it is therefore appropriate that we see no anger here, not on the part of Moses nor from God. God accepts the request as legitimate and provides a solution to the water shortage. The Rashbam goes even further, describing the whole situation as a set-up:
“There at Mara, through the fabrication of a test – God made them thirst for water and then ‘healed’ the water for them – He began to demonstrate to them, that if they will keep the statutes and judgments which He will teach, He will provide their needs.”
The Rashbam explains that God is teaching these former slaves in Egypt a new mind-set. Water from the Nile god was ever plentiful. Now, sustenance both physical and spiritual would be tied to keeping the commandments and moral behavior. This revolution in belief set civilization on a positive course. This was not just slavery to a new master. God shows them that this time, following orders will make life more enriched, more precious and more fulfilling. “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18) — and those who add it to their lives change the lens through which they see the world just as when Moses threw it into the water and the water became sweet.