the bitter waters: pleasure & happiness
Rabbi Israel Chait
transcribed by a student—the avos lectures (1990)
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 He made for them a statute and judgment, and there He put them to the test. He said, “If you will heed the 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 the Lord am your healer” (Exod. 15:22- 26).
The word “vayorehu” (showed) “and the Lord showed him a piece of wood” can mean either to teach or to throw. Unkelos translates this verse to mean that God taught Moshe about some type of wood.
There He made for them a statute and judgment, and there He put them to the test. He said, “If you will heed the 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 the Lord am your healer.”
From these final verses themselves, you see that there is more here than just a simple story.
What is meant by these verses and what is their relationship to the story?
There was an event, but its nature served as a substratum for certain ideas. The physical event mirrored the world of ideas; it was a double structure.
Chazal said that this wood that sweetened the waters was actually bitter itself; a miracle inside of a miracle [bitter wood sweetened the bitter water]. They also say that the Jews received some commandments in this location of Marah. Rashi writes:
At Marah He gave them a few sections of the Torah in order that they might engage in the study thereof; viz., the sections containing the command regarding the sabbath, the red heifer and the administration of justice (Exod. 15:25).
What is the relationship between the physical event and these three sections of Torah?
The Jews’ complaint in Marah was unique, and for which they were criticized. Rashi comments:
They did not consult with Moses in a respectful fashion: “Entreat mercy for us that we may have water to drink” — but they murmured (Ibid.).
There is another incident regarding the Jews:
In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” And the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion—that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not (Exod. 16:2-4).
In this latter case, the Jews received the manna. What is the difference between this case and the previous case of the bitter waters? The difference is that in Marah, although the waters were bitter, they did have water. It was not a question of survival. But regarding the manna, the Jews had a legitimate complaint, they would starve. Therefore, God gave them manna for man cannot exist without food.
In Marah they had water, as we said. The bitterness of the water indicated a dissatisfaction: there was not sufficient enjoyment in drinking it. But it was not a question of lacking water. That incident served as a lesson. God showed Moshe a bitter piece of wood, which, by throwing it into the bitter water, the water was thereby sweetened.
The lesson is that in life, a person is dissatisfied because he does not have what is sweet: certain luxuries and desires. He lacks what he wants. The lesson is that on the contrary, the bitter wood made the waters sweet. The opposite [of one’s expectations]. The bitter wood meant that the people had to withdraw their emotions completely from their desire for the physical enjoyments and engage themselves in Torah. That is why they received three Torah sections at Marah.
That event was used as a basis to teach the Jews the first idea since leaving Egypt. [This event took place immediately after the splitting of the sea.] While slaves, the Jews had no choices [to pursue personal desires]. But once they were free, their desires sought luxuries. They were no longer restricted slaves.
The reason why life is bitter is precisely because one directs his energies towards luxuries. The only method to remove bitterness [bitter waters/bitter life] is through another bitterness [bitter wood/frustrating the emotional desires]: facing those emotions and removing oneself from physical desires, which is difficult and bitter, and redirecting once energies towards wisdom.
That was the lesson.
The beginning of the righteous man’s life is bitter, but its end is sweet.
At first, it is difficult for the righteous person for he must first grapple with his emotions which are powerful, and redirect his energies towards wisdom. But his end is sweet, for when he accomplishes this, then, on the contrary, everything is very sweet. It is not that he only overcomes the bitterness, but the tzaddik experiences sweetness.
And the waters were sweetened
This is because the nature of life as such that if one directs his energies away from the physical desires, that is when he first enjoys life. Aristotle discusses if life is worthwhile. He said life is pleasant, but if you look at most of humanity, you would not come to that conclusion.
Most people do not have a smile on their face. With all the luxuries and accommodations people have today, people are exhausted, frustrated and miserable. It is like Bertrand Russell wrote 50 years ago. This is because the more one directs his energies towards what he considers to be happiness, the unhappier he grows. It is impossible to escape. The only way out is “bitterness”: to remove the energies from seeking physical desires. The frustration [of physical desires] exists because there is not ample satisfaction derived from physical desires. [Man’s energies are too great and physical desires offer too little. Only in wisdom, which is broad and endless, does man find full satisfaction; full expenditure of his energies.]
When a person engages in wisdom, even the simple pleasures are enjoyable. [This is because as he found wisdom to offer true happiness, he does no longer seeks pleasure from the physical world, but he seeks from it only what it was created to offer: a functioning vehicle, sufficient income for basic needs, a modest home. He is in line with reality. He is happy.] Waking up to the sun makes him happy. Little things. Such a person does not need the “big” pleasures. As Aristotle said, “Life is pleasant.” If man lives as God intended, he will always be happy.
And that the Lord showed him a piece of wood.
This bitter wood will actually sweeten the waters; the bitterness of constraining the emotions will ultimately enable us to redirect our energies towards wisdom, finding the greatest satisfaction.
They received laws of the red heifer, Sabbath, and justice:
“If you will heed the 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 the Lord am your healer.”
[The one who follows Torah will experience the sweet life; a life that heals all bitterness.]