This week we read of how the recently freed Israelites come upon a stream but they could not drink from it. Why? The text vaguely states ‘because they are bitter.’ Here is the verse: וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה–וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם (Ex 15:23). The Hebrew here could potentially yield two meanings as there is a dangling participle. JPS translates the Hebrew to mean that the people could not drink from the waters because they (the waters) are bitter. However, the Hebrew could easily be translated in a far more interesting way. The Baal Shem Tov reads this verse to state that the Israelites could not drink the water because they (the Israelites) are bitter. The Israelites were unable to shake off the suffering of slavery so easily, even as they knew their terrible experience of oppression had ended, because they saw that God had parted the sea. They, like so many victims of abuse and trauma, were unable to trust, to enjoy life giving water that they needed to sustain themselves. This reading makes sense, because the text makes it clear that these ancient people really were committed to living comfortable lives as slaves and had serious trouble seeing the miracle of their liberation. Check this verse out: כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת-מִצְרַיִם מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר (Ex 14:12); or this one, after God parts the sea! מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד-יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל-סִיר הַבָּשָׂר בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע: כִּי-הוֹצֵאתֶם אֹתָנוּ אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית אֶת-כָּל-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה בָּרָעָב (Ex 16:3).
This small verse give us tremendous insight into the way human beings experience powerlessness and the damage done to human beings because of unequal systems. As life beats us down, we ignore the very things we need to give us sustenance for our journey. We become literally unable to take it in. This is why sufferers of depression neglect their homes and their health. We develop rough edges in response to our powerlessness and become cynical about what we can change, even when the world is changing all around us. We also forget how to treat people as we forget how to treat ourselves. How many activists do you know who bulldoze over others in order to reach for the spotlight? Whose anger overshadows their vision of a better world? I once wrote a poem prayer about this very issue, thanks to a workshop led by the Jewish progressive poet Elaina Ellis. This is what I wrote back then (knowing nothing of the Baal Shem Tov’s reading of this verse):
“I release my rough edges to live a life of love and to allow love into my heart without the veil of humor and sarcasm shielding me from attack and disapproval. I release old grief, like sand to flowing silt. I allow a sweet water to run through me, a sweet water of kindness, chesed, eroding the edges of a dry riverbed, making old scars smooth and soft, wiping out old grooves that seemed permanent. I do not always need to yell back. And sometimes knowing when to fight, when to refuse to fight, and when to admit fault can distinguish the wise from the foolish.”
This week, we should all read beshallah with the intention of letting water into our dry riverbeds and softening the grooves of our familiar anger patterns. Change is always possible, both in the world and in you! Gut Shabbos!