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D’var Torah: Parashat Beshalach

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After walking through water, there was now no water.

In Parashat Beshalach, we are told how immediately after the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites entered into the wilderness of Sinai. For three long days they had nothing to drink, so they complained to their leader Moshe, and questioned why God was doing this to them. They had been looking forward to entering the Promised Land, but felt that they were now condemned to living in the wilderness.

Then, they came to a place called Marah. It was blessed with an abundance of water – “Ve lo yachlu lishtot mayim mimara” – but the people couldn’t drink the water – “ki marim hem” – because they were bitter.

The Maggid of Mezritch explains as follows: throughout those three days, the Israelites were complaining. They were full of bitterness. They were criticising their leader Moshe, and asking God why he had brought them into this wilderness. They had been looking forward to going into the land they were promised, and were wondering why they were now here instead.

“Ki marim hem” – the Maggid explains that this phrase, “because they were bitter”, does not refer to the water, but to the people. It was the people’s bitterness which caused the water to taste bitter when they drank it; it was their attitude which impacted on what they were drinking, and the taste it had.

There is a children’s story of a bird which flew far and wide in search of ‘fragrant heavens’ and ‘sweet smelling friends’, but wherever it went it could not find either, until another bird pointed out that there was some dirt stuck underneath the nose of this bird, which is why wherever it went, everything and everyone had a foul smell. So much depends on our own attitude towards something.

There are two Hebrew words which have the same lettering: ‘oneg’ and ‘nega’. ‘Oneg’ is pleasure, ‘nega’ is a plague. They are spelt with the same letters: nun, gimmel and eiyin. In ‘oneg’, the eiyin comes before the nun and the gimmel, whereas in ‘nega’ it comes after the other two letters, indicating that everything depends on our eiyin, or on our eyes: how we view a situation.

Two people can experience an identical phenomenon; for one it is a pleasure, for the other it is a plague. When we are embittered, everything we experience can seem bitter.

This coming Shabbat, 27th January, will be Holocaust Memorial Day; the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps we would be justified in feeling embittered, saddened and miserable, bearing in mind the horrific events of the last century that our people have experienced. However, this Shabbat is also called ‘Shabbat Shirah’, our ‘Sabbath of Song’. On this Shabbat, we will sing the ‘Az Yashir Moshe’, which can be found in the Parasha, and ‘Shirat Devorah’ – the song of Deborah, which is in the Haftarah.

“U’mi ke’amcha yisrael goy echad ba’retz.” Aren’t the Jewish people phenomenal? In the wake of so much suffering we sing songs. Instead of being negatively disposed; we are positively minded. We don’t forget our suffering, we mark it, we remember it, we memorialise it, but at the same time, we make the best of what we have, and rather than feeling full of bitterness, the world around us becomes sweet.

Shabbat Shalom.