Parshat B’Shalach: The Story of Marah and the Battle Against Religious Apathy
After the miracle at the Red Sea, Moshe leads Bnei Yisrael, who are literally dying of thirst, to a stream at a place called Marah. God tells Moshe to take a piece of wood and throw it into the water to make it sweet. At that point, the Torah states that God placed before Bnei Yisrael “chok umishpat,” some laws and statutes, but the Torah does not indicate what laws were taught. Perhaps God did not teach specific laws, but something relevant to the laws that He was going to transmit shortly at Mount Sinai. And this message must be related to what Moshe just did, namely sweetening bitter water. But what is the symbolism of sweetening bitter water?
Our Sages compare water to Torah. Now God did not make undrinkable water drinkable; rather, he made bitter water sweet. What’s the difference? If I’m so thirsty that I’m going to die, then all I need is drinkable water to quench my thirst. However, if the water is sweet, then it has flavor and I enjoy it. It stimulates my taste buds. Perhaps the point of this miracle is to convey that our religious experience must not simply be objectively meaningful but it must be stimulating. In today’s world in our Yeshiva day schools, when our community is stimulated by intellectual and academic excellence, our Judaic studies courses must not simply be drinkable, but they must be sweet. They must be just as stimulating as the general studies courses. We cannot suffice with mediocrity in our Yeshiva day schools out of fear that a rigorous Torah study education will scare off our community.
Secondly, if the water is drinkable, then that is an objective standard. It is the same for everyone. However, sweetness is very subjective, because taste is subjective. What is sweet for me is not sweet for you. The message of sweetness is that different people have different tastes and different portals of entry for religious growth and we must embrace that. Some people connect to God through Torah study, while some achieve this through Tikkun Olam. We must not only tolerate different spiritual taste buds, but we must embrace them because sweetness is subjective.
Third, the piece of wood that Moshe threw into the water itself was bitter, but it produced something sweet. Perhaps the point of this exercise was to convey that sometimes producing something sweet requires an activity that is bitter and difficult for us. This is true in all areas of life, and can certainly be true when it comes to religious growth.
Perhaps these lessons were the “chok umishpat” that God taught us thousands of years ago at Marah. I have found the story of Marah particularly relevant for the modern orthodox community when a number of our adherents struggle with how to best combat religious apathy. The story of Marah provides the answer: fuse Jewish experience with meaning by not settling for religious mediocrity, embrace the fact that our spiritual taste buds are different, and appreciate that sometimes we must use methods that are initially bitter to achieve sweetness.