She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed. — Proverbs 3:18
After the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus, the Israelites traveled in the desert for three days. As the Bible tells us, during that time they did not find any water. Finally, the Israelites arrived at Marah and found water. However, Scripture tells us that the water was bitter and they could not drink it.
The Jewish sages comment that the water was not bitter, but rather the people were, and because they were bitter, the water seemed that way as well.
The solution? “Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink” (Exodus 15:25).
What does this mean? It seems like magic of some sort. By throwing wood into the water, it somehow became sweet. What are we meant to learn from this?
First, let’s take a step back. Why were the Israelites bitter in the first place? Of course, anyone might become grouchy after traveling in the desert for days without fresh water. But these were the same people who had just witnessed the parting of the sea. Surely they had reason to suspect that God could bring them water!
The sages explain that the reason for the nation’s bitterness was that they had not studied God’s teachings for three days. When the Bible tells us that they went without water for three days in the desert, it also means that for the same three days they didn’t study God’s Word, which existed in the form of traditions passed down by Abraham. The sages conclude that when we don’t study God’s Word, we can become bitter.
When God told Moses to throw some wood into the water, it wasn’t just any wood, but the wood of the “Tree of Life” which contained a teaching from God. As it says of the Torah in Proverbs: “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.” Once Moses inspired the people with teachings, their bitterness ceased and the waters tasted sweet.
Friends, the lesson for us all is that when our circumstances get us down, we need to turn to the Word of God. Better yet, we need to study God’s Word regularly so that we don’t become depressed in the first place. We need to hold on to the Bible no matter what. When we hold onto the Bible, it holds us up. It takes away our bitterness and helps sweeten our challenges.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President