When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) - Exodus 15:23
The Torah portion for this week is Beshalach, which means "when he sent them away," from Exodus 13:17-17:16, and the Haftorah is from Judges 4:4-5:31.
Have you ever noticed that some of the strongest, happiest people you know have gone through some of life's toughest challenges? At the same time, some of the saddest people are ones who have led a relatively easy life. That's because life isn't about what happens to us; it's about how we react to what happens to us. It's not about what we did or what was done to us; it's about who we are when all is said and done.
In this week's Torah portion, we read about the climactic scene when the Israelites walked through the parted sea while the sea collapsed in behind them on the entire Egyptian army. We read the victorious Song of the Sea and learn how Miriam led the women in dancing and singing. What a joyous moment! What an incredible moment in history!
But do you know what happened next?
Right after the miracles and the singing and the dancing, the desert traveling got underway - and life was not so fun anymore. For three days, there was no water and the people were extremely thirsty. Then "they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter." The Jewish sages comment that it was not the water that was bitter, it was the people who were bitter. And because they were bitter, they experienced the water as bitter.
How could these people be bitter? They had just seen amazing miracles! But three days of tough traveling - on the heels of slavery - and they quickly became embittered about their situation.
This reminds me of Naomi, from the book of Ruth. Naomi had been a wealthy and prestigious woman. But after returning from Moab having lost her husband, her sons, and her fortune, she told the women, "Don't call me Naomi . . . Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter" (Ruth 1:20). Naomi means pleasant; Mara means bitter. Who could blame Naomi for being bitter after all she had been through? But I wish we could whisper in her ear how the story would end - how she would end up the great-grandmother of King David! Maybe then she wouldn't have chosen to be Mara.
You know, the name Miriam is also from the word mara. It fit Miriam, who was born into the time of harsh slavery. Indeed her life was bitter. But Miriam chose to become mora, which means "teacher" in Hebrew. Miriam didn't let life circumstances make her bitter; she became better - a leader and guide for her nation.
Friends, like the Israelites, we, too, have seen God do amazing things in our lives. True, we all experience painful times and challenges along the way. But never let anything make you bitter. Instead, stay pleasant - or better yet, learn from your experiences and become a better person.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President