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Pursuing the Sweetness of Life

Human beings are truly remarkable creatures. Their unique nature allows them to function on many different levels, instinctual, emotional and intellectual. This unique combination of operational levels also makes human beings susceptible to the phenomenon of fantasy.  This week’s Torah reading sheds light on handling this strictly human quality.

After the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the salvation of the nation of Israel from the advancing Egyptian army,  Moshe leads the people into the Wilderness of Shur on their way to Mt. Sinai.  A three day journey ensues before the nation finds water. The Torah records the nation finally comes to a place where “they could not drink the water because it was bitter.” The place was rightly called “Marah,” meaning “bitter.”  In a few concluding verses the Torah describes how God showed (taught) Moshe a tree, which itself was bitter; yet when thrown into the water, this tree made the water sweet. Immediately, “God establishes a decree and ordinance and there He tested them.” (Shemot 15:25) God promises to prevent any illness that afflicted the Egyptians from falling on the Children of Israel provided they listen diligently to the commands of God. “I am Hashem, your Healer.” (Shemot 15:26)

This is a very fascinating story. What actually happened at Marah? What lesson does it contain for people who will read this account in the future, like we are this week? Finally, what is the connection of God’s promise to the event of Marah?

When the nation arrived at Marah, having not had water for three days, you would think they would lap it up and express their gratitude. Instead, they don’t drink the water; even worse, they complain to Moshe. What happened? If this event was a matter of survival, life and death, they certainly would have drunk the water.

Marah was a place of water but it was bitter. What is the point? It means the people didn’t get enough enjoyment from the water. They weren’t satisfied with quenching their thirst and relieving their biological needs for water. As free people they were now looking to have all the enjoyments not previously available to them as slaves. Sweet or good tasting water is a luxury if you are dying of thirst. At that point any water will do. As slaves in Egypt, the desire for luxuries didn’t express itself. All human energy and effort was dedicated to survival. Now that the Children of Israel were free, their energy flowed to having luxuries as well.

The very desire for luxuries is rooted in fantasy and an over estimation of the pleasure afforded by the physical world. This notion is based on an illusion. Our mind is tricked since increased pleasure is momentarily achieved. We reason that human life and existence will be qualitatively improved by indulging in luxuries. We just have to find the right one.

The bitterness of the water brought out the people’s frustration. They thought their freedom entitled them now to the luxuries they were previously denied. Now they will have that qualitatively superior existence. That is exactly what God was teaching the people. You don’t need to have a life of luxuries to have a superior human existence. In fact, you are better off if you can remove yourself from this fantasy. The experiment has been done countless times. King Solomon explores this issue in Ecclesiastes. We chase after physical objects and enjoyments endowing them with inordinate pleasure and human happiness. We have all fallen prey to this malady. Most people in life are not happy even with all the luxuries of modern life. Anyone alive today is living a better physical life than the wealthiest person had 100 years ago. We don’t think so because that quality unique to humans, the ability to fantasize, drives us for the next luxury.

What does our Torah teach? We are not a religion that espouses asceticism, shunning physical enjoyments. At the same time the Torah teaches us and directs us by its laws that this is not the area to invest our human energy. Life is bitter precisely because that is where people place their energy. Surprisingly, the way out of the dilemma is counter intuitive. Moshe is told to throw a “bitter tree” into the “bitter water.” What is the lesson of Marah?

The way out, in fact, is by enduring another bitter experience. We must begin by facing our drives and emotions. After the pull of the fantasy subsides, we recognize we are back in the original state looking for the next luxury which will give us the “ultimate happiness.” At that point, if the person can reflect on what just happened, he or she can start to redirect energy into the pursuit of wisdom. Just that shift in focus while initially bitter, since the person no longer has satisfaction in fantasy  but is yet still lacking the real pleasure found in the pursuit of wisdom, starts the person down the road to a truly sweet life. It is for this pursuit and pleasure that human beings are designed and it remains their exclusive domain.

At Marah God gave the people a decree and an ordinance to start them on the road to wisdom. They were introduced to the idea of a mitzvah via being given a few mitzvoth to observe. (Shabbat, Red Heifer and Judges, Rashi: Shemot 15:25)The lesson of Marah was not only for those people at that time. Rather, it was a “teaching moment” for all future humanity as well.  A truly sweet life is attainable for man but each person must make a decision.  Choosing to follow the flow of fantasy presented by our desires and emotions, life will be bitter. An endless chase for illusory pleasures will ensue. A basically bitter and frustrating life will be lived. The expected happiness and pleasure will never be attained since it is based in fantasy.

However to the extent humans can direct their energy to attaining wisdom, happiness must result. The person is then living a life rooted in reality. By definition such a person will encounter no disappointment or bitterness. God’s promise then makes sense. When a person engages in that pursuit, the pursuit of understanding and living a life based in reality, he is safeguarded from afflictions. Being in line with the Creator’s will and purpose of the physical world and human existence, God testifies that His divine providence, השגחה, will intervene in a protective way to sustain us to partake in more of this life.  As we know, the best medicine is preventative medicine. God is “your Healer.” He has taught us and given us the antidote to avoid a life of instinctual, emotional, and intellectual bitterness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan