Ilana Goldstein Saks

The forgotten story and why we need to know it

The former Israelite slaves who sought water in the desert did more than slake their physical thirst at Mara's sweetened spring; they got a taste of Torah too (Beshalach)
Moses sweetens the waters at Mara. From the nave mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Moses sweetens the waters at Mara. From the nave mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So 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. There [God] made for them a fixed rule; there they were put to the test. [God] said, “If you will heed the voice Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am the Lord am your healer. (Exodus 15:22-26)

The story of Mara is often overlooked. A total of five verses in a Torah portion hardly lacking in famous biblical stories, it gets lost — tucked between tales of epic wonders on one side and celebrated miracles on the other. The rabbis of the midrash, however, saw in this tiny tale a story of great significance. Seizing the opportunity presented by the enigmatic story’s sparse yet intriguing details, they consider the short narrative from every angle; the resulting wellspring of midrashic interpretation far out-weighing the succinct biblical text.

The story — like many biblical desert narratives — starts off with thirsty Israelites: “they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water.” (Exodus 15:22)

Finally, they come to a spring, but are bitterly disappointed, because of the bitter water. The people complain, and Moses calls out to God, who brings the story to a happy close by instructing Moses how to sweeten the water by using the branch of a particular tree.

The moral of the story is concluded in its last verse:

If you will heed your God diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all God’s laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I God am your healer.” (ibid., v. 26)

Despite some of its curious details, the Mara story is simply one of a long list of biblical water stories. One midrash, however, transforms the search for water into a quest for God:

They found no water” – They did not find words of Torah, which are compared to water. Where is this seen? “Ho! All who thirst, go to the waters!” (Isaiah 55:1) (Mekhilta D’Rabi Yishmael, Beshalah, Vayasa, 1)

This carefully chosen verse from Isaiah is brought not only because it uses water as a metaphor for the word of God, but also because if one reads the verse in context (as one always should), the very next verse declares that one who hearkens to the word of God will be granted life (Isaiah 55:2-3) — an idea familiar to us from the conclusion of the Mara story. The midrash does not merely superimpose a foreign metaphor on the story in Exodus — it uses the verses from Isaiah as a prism through which to make sense of the self-proclaimed message of that story.

Isaiah 55, however, is just a tactic used by the midrash to get us to notice what it wants us to see; the first note in a treasure hunt which sets us on our own search for Torah — divining rod in hand. As one studies the Mara story more carefully, one finds that what might have seemed at first to be midrashic fancy, is actually grounded in textual fact.

When the Israelites commence their three-day journey into the desert, it is not actually the beginning of a story; rather, it is the realization of the goal first stated when God told Moses to take His nation out of Egypt:

You shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, became manifest to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord, our God. (Exodus 3:18.)

This request to travel three days into the desert — which becomes the symbol of Moses’ demand that Pharaoh let his people go — is repeated in Exodus 5:3, and again Exodus 8:23.(see also 3:12, 5:1, 7:16, 10:24). The ultimate destination is Mount Sinai, where, eventually, God reveals Himself to them and they sacrifice to Him (see Exodus 5:1, 24:4-8 and, ironically, 32:5). However, initially, when at long last, “they traveled three days in the wilderness…” the careful reader expects to hear that they sacrificed to God, or celebrated before Him. But the long-anticipated encounter with God does not happen. “They find no water.” They found no Torah.

But just as much as Mara is the culmination of the exodus, it is also the first in a long string of stories that gradually prepare the nation for Sinai. For if the people prove themselves unready to receive the Torah at that early stage of freedom (midrashic sources differ as to where to place the blame), each subsequent step in the desert provides a lesson, training them to seek and see the Divine in their daily lives. Unlike the Mara story, these stories spell out that when the people complain about water, they are really failing to perceive God in their midst (Exodus 17:7); that God provides them with food day in and day out, to teach that they cannot live on bread alone (Exodus 16:4,12; Deuteronomy 8:3); and that while one must prepare ones soldiers for battle, it is important to perceive God’s hand behind the victory (Exodus 17:11; Mishna Rosh Hashana 3:8). When seeing the Mara story in this context, understanding it as a story about the search for Torah is suddenly not so farfetched. Even if on that hot day in the desert the people thirsted for actual water, another type of thirst can be discerned between the lines as well.

It is not terribly surprising that the same midrashic tradition that claims that the people were searching for Torah as they traveled toward Mara explains that the antidote for the bitter water of Mara was Torah, which is, after all, a “tree of life.” (Go check out the verses, see where they take you.) That midrashic source goes on to list all the various types of Torah knowledge that the people of Israel learned their first snippets of that day. Although the Torah will be given not so long after, amid much spectacle at Mount Sinai, the midrash saw fit that the first tastes of Torah should be specifically at Mara (note the end of Exodus 15:25). How meaningful that Torah is introduced as something we should be searching for – an object of our yearning. How appropriate a place was Mara for them to internalize that Torah is something intended to quench our thirst and give us life — that it is meant to be sweet. How interesting that an age-old midrash about the ancient Israelites journey to find Torah, should guide us to do exactly that today.

About the Author
Ilana Goldstein Saks has an MA in Bible from Bar-Ilan University, has taught in a number of midrashot and schools in Israel, and has worked in Jewish Studies curriculum development. She has also baked and taught workshops on bread and Jewish sources at an Israeli artisanal bakery. Ilana is currently the coordinator of a special needs bakery at Sadnat Shiluv. and teaches online for She lives with her family in Efrat.
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