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Torah Reflections

Beshalakh: From Bitter to Sweet

This week’s Torah portion (Beshalakh), includes Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites and a miraculous escape made possible by the parting of the Sea of Reeds. There is an epic victory poem and a description of the prophetess Miriam leading the women in joyful celebration. Too bad the portion doesn’t continue on this uplifting note.

Immediately after this moment of triumph, we read:

Moses led the Israelites away from the Reed Sea, out into the wilderness of Shur; they walked in the wilderness for three days in the desert but they did not find water. They came to Marah/Bitter, but they were not able to drink the water of Marah/Bitter because it was marim/bitter; therefore, [the place] was called Marah/Bitter.  (Exodus 14:22-23)

Notice that the word “bitter” is repeated four times in one short verse. Generally, when the Torah emphasized a word in this way, its signal to pay attention.


The sense experience of bitterness is hard to describe but nevertheless unmistakable. The dictionary describes it as a sharp, pungent taste or smell. Bitter flavors add complexity to food and drink, but in an unadulterated form–think unsweetened chocolate–bitterness is rather unpleasant.

In Hebrew as in English, bitterness can also describe a person’s personality or mood. Bitterness shows up as anger, hurt, and resentment, generally as a result of mistreatment. Such a person might also be described as spiteful, sullen, churlish, petulant, and peevish.

Biblical scholars suggest that the water source at Marah was in all likelihood brackish and therefore too salty (rather than bitter) to drink. As those of us who live near estuaries know, brackish water has a distinctive, somewhat unpleasant odor. But I wouldn’t describe it as bitter. And that makes me wonder whether something more is going on here.

Beshalakh’s bitter water

Apparently, I’m not the only one. Consider the following interpretation:  from an anthology of Jewish teachings known as Itture Torah:

[Beshalakh] says, “They could not drink the water because it was bitter”. Bitterness was not the actual condition of the water; rather, the Israelites felt bitter and, therefore, whatever they tasted was bitter to them. (Itture Torah, quoted in The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

This teaching is based on the second definition of bitterness, the one that describes a particularly unpleasant mind state. Given the bitter experience of slavery (symbolized, incidentally, at the Passover Seder by eating bitter-tasting condiments), it’s no surprise that the Israelites felt this way. Nor is it surprising that it colored their experience of the early days of their uncertain freedom.

Many of us are feeling a fair amount of concern about our own uncertain freedom. Despite the efforts of an incredibly motivated opposition, distressing executive orders policies and political appointments continue. I thought I would feel despair. Instead, I’m feeling something more energizing but nevertheless worrisome. Anger, resentment and spite are arising–in other words, bitterness–and coloring the way I see the world.

From bitter to sweet

In Beshalakh, the Israelites responded to the bitter water by directed their bitterness toward Moses. So what did Moses do?

He cried out to YHVH, and YHVH instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:25)

That solved the practical problem, but did little to address the Israelites inner experience of bitterness. As a result–and as we shall see–their bid for freedom came very close to failing.

When I notice the arising of bitterness in myself, I recognize that I need to find a strategy for sweetening the water of my mind- and heart-stream. I’m careful about the amount of attention I give to distressing news. I’m especially mindful of bitter thoughts and feelings, and I do my best to keep them from proliferating.

And I sweeten the water by finding ways to comfort and encourage myself (and others) and by opening my heart to the power of the journey and those who travel with me–including you.

May you be blessed…

May your heart be free of despair and bitterness, even when the outlook is bleak. May you find the resources–inner and outer–that sweeten the stream of your thoughts. And may we all–soon and in our days–reach the Promised Land.

Ameyn, ken yehi ratzon. Amen, so may it be.

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