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Beshalach 5782 ~ January 14, 2022

On this Shabbat we join together to celebrate threefold: Tu B’Shevat, to pay honor in remembering the very important steps of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to read the Song of the Sea which was chanted by Moses at the “Crossing of the Sea.”

Within this week’s parasha (Beshalach), there is a moment when the Children of Israel are despondent by the fact that their drinking water is rather bitter.  One of the commentaries, or shall I say teachings, that I have read in preparation for this Shabbat, provides an impressive understanding of dealing with the change from servitude to freedom.  Rabbi Ilana Kurshan provides a most meaningful interpretation of our reading for those who believe, anticipate and expect that, with freedom, the world should all of a sudden solely be filled with sweet water and freedom. The Children of Israel did not experience that reality and neither should we or anyone who seeks or demands freedom.

Rabbi Ilana Kurshan teaches:

“When the people first find themselves without drinking water after having journeyed three days from the Sea of Reeds, they are encamped at Marah. The word Marah means “bitterness,” and indeed, the problem at Marah is not that there is no water, but that the water is too bitter to drink. Bitterness was the hallmark of the Israelites’ experience of Egyptian enslavement – the Egyptians “made life bitter for them with harsh labor” (Exodus 1:14). The people believed that in leaving Egypt, they were leaving the bitterness behind them. They are dismayed to encounter bitterness even after God’s dramatic and miraculous deliverance. “What shall we drink?” they complain to Moshe. Remarkably, they do not make any mention of God at this point. The same people who, just three days before, sang out “the Lord is my strength and might, He is become my deliverance” (15:2), do not even think to turn to God, or to ask their leader to turn to God on their behalf. Have they already forgotten God’s power to perform miracles with water? Surely a God who split the sea can provide drinking water!

The midrash relates that even Moshe had a spiritual crisis at Marah. When the people complained to Moshe, Moshe in turn appealed to God. According to the midrash, Moshe cried out, “Why were these waters created? What benefit do they afford the world? It would be better if they had not been created!” (Exodus Rabbah 43:3). Moshe, perhaps emotionally overwhelmed both by the dramatic splitting of the sea and by the stress of the people’s neediness, is also incapable of making a straightforward request of God, and instead lashes out in frustration. Soon after the people’s miraculous deliverance, it seems that Moshe, too, has lost faith in God’s power to rally to the people’s aid.

In the Torah, God responds to Moshe’s cry by showing him a piece of wood which he can throw in the water to make it sweet. The midrash explains that God is trying to teach Moshe a lesson that can serve the people lifelong. God begins by objecting to Moshe’s request to undo the creation of the waters: “Don’t say that. Are they not the work of my hands? Is there anything in the world that was not created for a purpose? Rather, I will teach you what you should say. Say this: Make the bitter sweet.” There is no way to get rid of the bitterness; it is a part of the created world. The Israelites will continue to experience bitterness even after having escaped Egyptian bondage. But they can learn how to make the bitter sweet. As free people, they will have the power to change their circumstances so that the bitterness does not define the entirety of their experience.”

Rabbi Kurshan’s teachings remind us of how impressive the challenge is. In some ways, her words allow us to stand proud as we continue to witness how the State of Israel continually has built upon its successes in the area of agriculture, science, ecology and environmental protection and sustainability. That is, in many ways, how we might value the celebration of Tu B’Shevat.  At the same time, we must recognize that the waters of success in Israel still contain the bitterness of a non-peaceful reality and a continuation of rhetoric of hatred and aggressions towards Israel that is similar to that of the Pharaoh of our Biblical story by the leadership by many in Iran, the Palestinians and Hamas.

As we join together to remember Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Kurshan’s teachings remind us of the bitterness of waters that remain, as we witness the tragic murders of innocent Blacks here in America. There is still quite a bit of work left to bring to fruition the monumental lessons and struggle of Dr. King. Yet, as she correctly points out: “As the people learn, freedom does not obliterate bitterness, but it does give us the agency to be able to sweeten some of the bitter moments. Likewise, freedom does not mean liberation from all constraint, but rather the opportunity to infuse our lives with structure and purpose. These lessons may go hand in hand…. We may find ourselves receptive to miracles not just at life’s rare and climactic moments, but also at the many wilderness encampments along the way.”

It is not enough to simply chant the words of celebration of Moses or Miriam as the Children of Israel did when they crossed through the Sea of Reeds, and arrived at the other side. The challenge is how one takes the bitterness and translates and transforms it, once one arrives on the other side.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782