B’shalach: The bitter and the sweet

B’shalach: The bitter and the sweet

The great Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer, composer of “Jerusalem of Gold”, penned the following lyrics to another song entitled “Al Kol Eleh (For All of These Things)”. I offer a non-literal English translation: “…Every bee that brings the honey / Needs a sting to be complete / And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.”

Written after the glow of 1967 and the melancholy of the Yom Kippur War, Shemer understood the mood of the Israel people. In song, as only she could, she exhorted her nation to believe that life’s true goodness can only be found in the mixing of the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet.

At first blush, this is a rather odd sentiment. You would expect her to focus just on the sweet, on the good things in life. Why does Shemer embrace the bitter as well?

A brief incident in the second half of our Torah portion provides the answer. The people of Israel have just been redeemed through the parted waters of the Yam Suf, the Red Sea. After traveling three days without water, they come to a place called Marah where there is water but it is bitter. The people of Israel do what they always do… they grumble. Moses cries out to God and God responds by showing Moses a stick. Moses takes the stick and throws it into the water and the water becomes sweet. (Exodus 15:22-25)

This wondrous trick, this act of suspending nature, becomes for the Rabbis an opportunity to share an insight into human nature and a chance to reflect on our purpose here on earth. A Midrash has Moses calling out to God, “Why did You create brackish water in Your world, a liquid which serves no purpose?” God replies, “Instead of asking philosophical questions, do something to make the bitter waters sweet.” This retort by God is consistent with God’s words to Moses when he cries out at the sea, “Why cry to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward…” (Exodus 14:15).

Moses for the Rabbis is not a particular man. He is everyman, every person. “Why the bitter?” we ask when difficulty strikes and pain arises. And God answers, “My dear creation, you are asking the wrong question. The right question is, “What can I do to make the bitter sweet?”.

This is the Jewish way. Mar v’hamatok, the bitter and the sweet, are always a pair. Happiness and tears, maror and charoset, always go together. Each has its place in our world. We can ponder why tragedy strikes, why bitterness comes our way, but our job is to act. Our job is to sweeten the bitter, to make the bitter more palatable.

How do we do this? The answer to this question comes in next week’s parasha Yitro when God gives us the Torah. The mitzvot are God’s remedy for the bitterness in life. When sickness strikes, we visit the sick. When death comes, we comfort the mourner and surround her with love. When financial failure looms, we help our neighbor with an outstretched hand. When our fellow Jews are threatened by violence and hatred, we stand together with them boldly as one. When the songs of sadness embitter our hearts, we sing songs of hope and faith to get us through.

Over the past several weeks our community has tasted a great deal of bitterness. Synagogues have been defaced and Jewish lives have been threatened. Now is the time to sweeten the bitter, to cast our stick into the brackish water, just as Moses did. Hava nashira, come let us sing together and learn together and schmooze together as one community this Saturday night, motzei Shabbat, at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center for Sweet Tastes of Torah. Let us make the statement this Saturday night that our task is not merely to question the hatred but to answer… to answer with love and support and learning.