With the miraculous splitting of the Reed Sea, the Children of Israel witnessed their enemies being vanquished, and they knew incontrovertibly that they would no longer be pursued. Nevertheless, the experience of slavery left its indelible mark, and the Jews needed to unlearn patterns of thinking, feeling, and believing that had become ingrained. Helplessness, in addition to being an objective reality, is also a mindset. Freeing the body is far easier than empowering the mind and the soul, and this re-education became God’s (and Moses’) mission for the people.
Chapter 15, verse 22 tells us that “Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled for three days in the wilderness and found no water.” The people did not want to leave the shores of the sea — Moses had to force them. The Midrash explains that the Jews were busy gathering up all of the precious metals and gems with which the Egyptians had adorned their horses and which had washed up on the shore; they were reluctant to leave any loot behind. Given what they had undergone, this behavior made sense.
A more psychological perspective on the peoples’ reluctance, and a viewpoint which illuminates all of their reactions and behavior for the next 18 months (and two and a half books of the the Torah!) is that helplessness held them hostage. After having been slaves for so long, needing to serve their masters’ dicta, fulfill their whims, and suffer their lashes, the people did not know how to take initiative, or even how to move on. Moses had to move them.
Moses took them into the desert; they were now on their way to Mount Sinai and then, to the land that once was, and would again be, their home. They “traveled for three days…and found no water.” The Kli Yakar, a 16th century scholar and exegete, explains their inability to find water, and their subsequent arrival at Marah, where the water was bitter, (verses 23-24) metaphorically reflects the Israelites’ mindset. Water is a metaphor for life, for hope, for Torah, for God. The people had ample evidence and reason at this point to trust God, His messenger Moses, and the prospect of a new life that was placed before them. Yet they could not find it, and when they did, it tasted bitter.
Bitterness is a mindset, often born out of trauma. It is an understandable response to situations in which we feel that we have been completely and unjustly victimized by fate, people, and God. Bitterness is both corrosive and debilitating.
Verse 25 recounts that “Therefore he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.” The text can also read “and He taught Him a tree,” which, while a more cumbersome reading, perhaps reveals the true meaning of what is happening here. The Torah is giving us tools to deal with trauma, grief, loss, pain. First of all, we can pray. We can turn to the Creator and simply cry out and ask for help and guidance. In response, rather than just performing another miracle, God teaches Moses how to deal with bitter water: add a tree.
Trees represent many of the same things that water does, especially life. But life embodied by trees is far more complex and multifaceted. A tree is a natural resource that gives, but it demands patience for it to grow, and requires working to harvest fruit, weave leaves, chop wood and build homes. It requires a commitment to the future by always planting more. A tree represents rootedness, connectivity and reach. Any and all of these concepts are antidotes to despair, helplessness and bitterness. God taught Moses, and us, that taking a tree and tossing it into bitter water turns that water sweet. Everything that a tree represents is an antidote to what the Jews were experiencing. Once they began to understand even the first ripples of trees-in-bitter water, they were able to experience the first tastes of sweetness.
Overcoming bitterness is extraordinarily challenging; cultivating hope, resilience, empathy and empowerment requires both individual and collective work. This work can take as long as it does for a tree to grow, if not longer, and it is as complex as an ecosystem. I believe that with personal commitment to positive growth, support from friends and communities, and with a little guidance from God, overcoming bitterness is both possible and attainable.