THIS IS WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE FREE. After
the glorious miracles at the Sea of Reeds – with generations of slavery and
suffering finally and irrevocably behind them; with their erstwhile
oppressors, the Egyptians, lying dead along the shore; with their unswerving
trust in Hashem
and in His servant Moshe confirmed; and with the clear evidence that Hashem,
“the Master of war”, will champion their cause forever – no doubt
it has begun to dawn upon the Children of Israel that a life of freedom has
HOW DOES A SLAVE PEOPLE ENVISAGE itself as a free people after so many years?
And, how can such a people be educated for a life of freedom?
FIRST STEPS WILL BE CRUCIAL; they will set the tone for how – and, in
particular, for what purpose – freedom is to be achieved.
And this must be taught.
STORY IS TOLD OF A PRIVATE IN NAPOLEON’S army who saved the emperor’s
life. Napoleon offered to reward
the private for his courageous service. After
thinking for a moment, the private said:
“I would like a transfer to another unit, because my sergeant is very
hard on me.”
REPLIED NAPOLEON. “Why not ask
to become a sergeant yourself?” If
not properly guided, people who have never known freedom can misuse it.
ARE THE FIRST STEPS THAT WILL successfully lead the Children of Israel from
the euphoria of the Sea of Reeds to the foot of Mount Sinai?
Perhaps the first thing they need is a push.
Moshe made Israel journey from the Sea of Reeds and they went out into the
wilderness of Shur. And they went
for three days in the wilderness and they did not find water.
And they came to Marah [bitter] and they were not able to drink water
from Marah, because they were bitter; therefore its name was called Marah.
And the people murmured against Moshe, saying “What shall we drink?”(Shemot
A RUDE AWAKENING! The waters of
freedom are bitter! Freedom, it
seems, is not the magical, trouble-free existence they may have once imagined.
It is demanding, and fraught with disappointments.
LONG AS THEY WERE SLAVES, the Children of Israel never had to concern
themselves with obtaining water. Their
forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – free men, responsible for
families, servants and flocks – devoted much time to locating water.
Furthermore, by digging wells and naming them they demonstrated their
ownership of the land. The paradox of the unceasing preoccupation with water is that
– arduous as it may be to attain – it is, nonetheless, the concern of free
NOW THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL’S experiences with water was as a medium of
suffering: Their babies were
thrown into the Nile. Hashem
transformed the Nile into blood. And,
just three days ago, Hashem destroyed the mighty Egyptian army under the waves
of the Sea of Reeds. Will they
ever be able to see water as the medium of life and freedom?
he cried out to Hashem, and Hashem instructed him about a tree which he cast
into the waters, and the waters became sweet.
There He established for it [the nation] law and justice, and there He
tested it. And He said:
“If you will surely hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, and
will do that which is right in His eyes, and you will give ear to His
commandments and you will keep all His laws, then all the maladies which I
have put upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I am Hashem your
Healer” (vs. 25-26).
EZRA NOTES THE SYMMETRY of comparing this miracle with the first of the Ten
Plagues: then, Hashem changed
sweet water into blood; now, Hashem shows that He can also turn brackish water
sweet. Of course, this
demonstrates Hashem’s mastery over the forces of nature. The midrash
(Mechilta Beshalach) says that the tree itself was bitter, and only
Hashem can use a bitter agent to turn the bitter sweet.
EVEN MORE PROFOUNDLY, the people are
learning a personal level of Hashem’s Providence: Hashem
is the same One Who not only punishes, but rewards; He brings illness, but He
also is the Healer; and He is the same One Who creates the bitter and then can
make it sweet.
TO ACCOMPLISH THIS, HASHEM demands the cooperation of the Children of Israel.
They must learn that it is only through the Torah – its law
and justice, its commandments and laws – that their
freedom will have meaning.
KLI YAKAR (R. SHLOMO EPHRAIM LUNSCHITZ, c.1550-1619), sees the key to
understanding this passage in the root of the word instructed –
VAYOREIHU (uvruhu) – which is Y.R.H. (vrh), the same as the root for TORAH.
More than just instructing Moshe where to find the tree, and how to use
it, Hashem wanted Moshe to use the tree itself as a visual aid, an object
lesson for the connection between Torah, human freedom and Hashem’s
SOUL CONTAINS ELEMENTS OF BITTERNESS,
in the form of destructive passions, but the Torah, whose strictures often
begin as bitter themselves, sweetens the waters of life.
It provides a framework in which freedom can flourish responsibly,
creatively and purposefully. When
the Jewish people observed the Torah, Hashem enters into a partnership with
them and showers them with healing blessings.