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The Two Travelers

Parshas Beshalach

Have you ever heard the old folktale about the man and the two travelers? An old farmer was hoeing in his field beside the road on the outskirts of town. A stranger walked up to him and said, “I’m new to these parts, and it looks like I’ll settle here for a while. What sort of people live in this town?” 

“What were the people like where you come from?” replied the farmer. “Oh, they were the best people in the world. They would do anything to help a neighbor. I’m sorry to be leaving them,” he said. “Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll also find the same sort in the next town.”

The traveler happily went on his way. Sometime later, a second traveler came trudging down the road and stopped to talk to the farmer. “Excuse me, what sort of people live in this town?” he asked, “I’ve come to settle in these parts.” “What were the people like where you come from?” replied the farmer. “They were a bad lot,” said the traveler, “They were jealous and petty and never helped anyone. I’m happy to be leaving them, actually.”

“I’m sorry,” said the farmer, “I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort here, too.”

Which Odessa?

That story was just a parable, but I want to tell you a story that actually happened. 

Two people from Odessa once traveled to see Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth rebbe of Chabad. When the first one entered, the other one – still seated in the waiting area – couldn’t help but listen in on his friend’s meeting with the Rebbe. Perhaps he didn’t mean to spy, but his ears perked up when he heard the Rebbe ask his friend, “And how are things in Odessa?”

The chassid answered that Jewish life was growing in the city. Of course, there were challenges, but on balance, things were good. The second chassid was dismayed at the “sugar-coated” version that was given. How could he fail to mention the rampant licentiousness of Odessa? He was troubled as he overheard the Rebbe give the chassid two rubles as a token of participation in his work, and thank him for the report. 

When the first chassid left and the second one entered, the Rebbe asked him the same question – “How are things in Odessa?”

The second chassid was determined to tell the truth. He described the bleak state of Odessa Jewry, particularly the young people who had become corrupted by the worst big city life had to offer.

The Rebbe thanked him for his report but did not give him two rubles, or even one. 

The chassid was shocked. “I told the truth!” he cried, “Why am I rebuffed while another is rewarded?”

The Previous Rebbe responded, “Do you think I don’t know how things are in Odessa? That’s not why I asked. The purpose of my question was to see in which ‘Odessa’ you live!”

Like Toothpaste and Orange Juice

Parshas Beshalach describes a strange incident that occurred just a few days after the Splitting of the Sea:

“Moshe led the Jews away from the Sea of Reeds, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah but could not drink the waters from Marah because they were bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. The people complained against Moshe, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to Hashem, and Hashem instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.”

These are four verses, but a lot is going on here, so let’s recap the main points: 

The Jews went for three days without water before they arrived at Marah.

When they got to Marah, there was water, but it was too bitter to drink.

Moshe somehow fixed the water with a piece of wood, and everybody drank. 

Before we understand the story more clearly, let’s make it more complicated. Let’s look in the Midrash. “Rabbi Yehoshua says, ‘The waters were only bitter at that moment and were sweetened again.” In other words, the waters did not become undrinkable until the Jews showed up! It seems like pretty rotten timing, especially since we know they had just gone three days without finding a fresh water supply before this. Another Midrash says that the water in their canteens became bitter, too. This is strange, too. How do we explain that?

The explanation is simple. It’s just like toothpaste and orange juice. Do you remember as a kid being utterly shocked the first time you tasted orange juice right after brushing your teeth? What happened to the orange juice?! The orange juice tastes funny! Did the orange juice change? Or did your taste buds change? And if you’d drink the orange juice an hour later and it was sweet again, does that mean the orange juice changed back?

We can now understand the story. “Vayavau Marasah… and they came to Marah… v’lo yachlu lishtos mayim miMarah… and they couldn’t drink the waters from Marah… ki marim heim… because they were bitter…” The conventional reading of the verse is that the Jews couldn’t drink the waters from Marah because the waters were bitter.” But the Maggid of Mezeritch reads it differently: “The Jews couldn’t drink the waters from Marah because they the Jews themselves were bitter”. That’s right, “they” means the Jews! “They were bitter” means the Jews were bitter… that’s why the water tasted bitter!

It now makes sense that the Midrash says that the waters became bitter as soon as the Jews showed up! It was the bitterness with which the Jews perceived the waters that made the waters bitter. It also makes sense that the Midrash says that even the water in their canteens became bitter because we now understand that any water the Jews would have tasted at that moment would have been bitter!

But why did this happen after three days of not finding water?

Hydrate Often

I once saw a sign in front of a non-Jewish house of worship in the Deep South. It said, “SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT BIBLE STUDY… MAKES ONE WEAK.”

Pretty cute. But seven days is stretching it.

The passuk teaches us: “They walked for three days in the desert but did not find water.” While the literal meaning of the verse remains true, the Midrash tells us that the verse also alludes to a spiritual truth. They went three days without Torah, which is compared to water. “Therefore,” continues the Midrash, “the prophets and sages enacted that the community must read from the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays [in addition to Shabbos.]” This way, one never goes three days without Torah.

What happened to the Jews after three days of not drinking the life-giving waters of Torah? Exactly what you might expect would happen. Their outlook on life becomes distorted. That’s why when they arrived at Marah after three Torah-less days, the waters were bitter to them.

What do you suppose the solution was then? How did they make those waters sweet again? They needed to adjust their perspective. They needed to perceive things from a sweet, Torah perspective again. And that’s just what happened.  The passuk tells us: “So [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem instructed him concerning the eitz [wood], which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.”

What is this mysterious “eitz” that Moshe used to make the bitter waters sweet? The usual translation in this context is that Moshe cast a piece of wood in the waters. Perhaps though you’re familiar with Mishlei 3:18? We say it when the Torah is lifted and shown to the congregation. “Eitz chayim hi l’machazikim bah… – It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it….” 

Torah is compared to water, and Torah is also compared to a Tree – a Tree of Life, to be exact. That was the “eitz” or the piece of wood – Torah! “Take even just a piece of it,” Hashem tells us, “Take one Torah thought and ‘cast it into the waters,’ dwell upon it, apply it to your life, and even if life has been bitter, it will now taste sweet!”

We are constantly inundated with foreign viewpoints, and let’s not kid ourselves; they influence how we see life. So it’s not as if going without water means having no drinks at all. It’s more like going without water and instead drinking soda all day. We keep sipping our beverage, thinking we’re keeping hydrated, but we’re really drying ourselves out. So too, we don’t need mental “soda” and its fake sweetness. We need Torah. And then we will see the true sweetness.

May we all stay connected to the life-giving waters of Torah and see the sweetness of life! 

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