B’shelach(Exodus 13:17-17:16) Our Waters of Bitterness

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            This year, this is not such a simple portion. Yes, it is the “Song of the Sea” and so many congregations will, this Shabbat, have “Shabbat Shira”, a Sabbath of song, celebrating the passage in Torah where we find the “mi chamocha”. (15:11). Miriam dances with her timbrel as that section closes. There is the “miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds/Red Sea (14:21ff) and the beginning of the Wilderness experience.

            But this year there is so much that is overwhelming our community that singing a song of a military victory may be, well, cautionary. For as the Wilderness experience begins the Israelites come to the Waters at Marah. “They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was called Marah” (15:23)

            How symbolic of the Torah that we meet bitterness this Shabbat. The challenges of what we are facing as a Jewish world, both in Israel, in the USA and worldwide have left a bitter taste in so many. How can we manage this reality? There seems to be no “Nachshon” to lead us through the perilous times we live in. Has the bitterness of the present challenge begun to turn people against each other?

            In a prescient commentary, Rabbi Abraham Twerski (z’l) in his “Living Each Week”, cites a comment by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. The Baal Shem Tov looks at the word for bitter and says that one could read the verse and have the “they” refer to the Israelites. In other words: “They could not drink the waters of Marah because they, the Israelites, were bitter” (p.141). In times like, these, is there a danger that we become bitter, and in that, we lose faith in the higher values that may be at risk.

            Are we in danger now, of too many divisions on the role of Israel, our place in that continuum, the place of the Diaspora, and the tension between ridding the evil that threatens the very fabric of existence and the loss, on all sides, of innocent life AND innocence itself.?

This portion and the “waters of Marah” may, if you wish this Shabbat, open that conversation again. In the text, God hears the Israelites grumbling and provides the means whereby the bitter water turned sweet. It will take more than that this time.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address

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