A few months ago, the year began with sweetness and prayer. An apple dipped into honey is one of our most familiar Rosh Hashanah motifs, and the words, “shanah tovah u’mesukah,” one of our most poignant petitions. We wish not only for a good year but also for a “sweet” one. As we navigate the twists and turns of life’s journey, we ask that the experiences we encounter not only turn out well, but also feel sweet.

Yet Yeshayahu Hanavi (5:20) warns us, “Woe to those who consider bitter as sweet and sweet as bitter.” When our taste buds fail us, even the sensations of bitterness and sweetness can be confused.

And sometimes, paradoxically, a bitter agent can become the very sweetener we seek.

Bitter Water into Sweet

After leaving the Red Sea, Bnei Yisrael began their arduous journey into the Midbar. The Torah relates several events that occurred as they made their way to Har Sinai. Having not yet received the Well of Miriam, their most immediate concern involved the primary challenge of a desert environment: finding water.

Marah, their first stop, was named after the mayim hamarim, its bitter, undrinkable waters. After the nation cried out in prayer, Hashem showed Moshe a particular tree or plant to toss into the water to sweeten it.

The events at Marah can be regarded as the capstone of the revelations the Jewish Nation had recently experienced. The Ibn Ezra notes that while the first makkah in Mitzrayim transformed potable water into blood, an undrinkable substance, the initial display of Hashem’s power in the Midbar did the reverse. It transformed bitter water into something sweet and palatable. Thus the nation would realize that Hashem must be both feared and loved.

Rav Hirsch comments that in Mitzrayim, Bnei Yisrael learned of Hashem’s closeness at extraordinary moments, while in Marah they saw Him responding to their daily needs. This would help them learn that one can trust in Hashem under all circumstances, and that life is made sweet when we follow His instructions.

The deeper, universal message of Marah addresses our nation throughout its history. We face many obstacles throughout our wanderings, and each individual encounters various difficulties during his own life journey. But always, the tree is the remedy — the Tree of Life — a metaphor for the Torah (Mishlei 3:18), which has the power to sweeten and vitalize. Thus, the stop in Marah can also be viewed as a preparatory interlude to Matan Torah, and the wood that Moshe threw into the water is symbolic of the Torah’s ability to change the unpalatable into something appealing.

Catalyst for Salvation

In fact, this essential truth about the curative properties of Torah was formally pronounced at Marah: “If you listen to the Voice of Hashem and… observe His decrees, then the afflictions I placed upon Mitzrayim [including the undrinkable water!] I won’t place upon you, for I am Hashem your Healer.”

Furthermore, the Midrash explains that there were several layers of miracles — and several layers of meaning — in Marah: The plant itself was bitter, but it sweetened enough water to satisfy the needs of millions of people. Initially, the Torah, or a particular mitzvah, may seem unpalatable and burdensome. Yet if we observe it, it can sweeten our lives and quench our thirst.

The Midrash highlights a different nuance of the Marah miracle, noting a striking parallelism between Marah and the previous stop at Yam Suf, where the nation sang shirah to Hashem after the sea split. Our Sages take us back to the early days of Moshe’s mission in Mitzrayim, when he complained to Hashem in anguish at what he perceived to be the failure of his assignment: “Hashem, why have You done evil to this people and why have You sent me? Mei’az basi el Pharaoh — since I approached Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has done yet more evil to Your nation [by accelerating their workload]…”

And then, at Yam Suf, Moshe discovered that Hashem had a plan all along. The wicked Pharaoh may have increased his demands on Yisrael, but ultimately Hashem’s agenda prevailed; in fact, the increased workload led to a faster exodus for Bnei Yisrael, and a more spectacular downfall for Pharaoh.

A contrite Moshe sang Az Yashir and praised His Maker: “Master of the Universe, I know that I sinned to you with the word ‘az’ when I complained to you earlier, ‘mei’az basi el Pharaoh,’ I will now rectify the sin as I sing shirah to You with the word az, ‘Az yashir Moshe.’ ”

But the Midrash has more to say: “This is the way of tzaddikim — they rectify the sin in the same manner in which they sinned [the tikkun is sourced in the sin itself]. Where did they learn this? From HaKadosh Baruch Hu. With the very punishment that He smites us with, He heals us. We can learn this from Marah, when He showed Moshe a bitter agent to throw into the water, and the waters became sweet. Similarly, Moshe sinned with ‘az,’ and Moshe rectified his sin with ‘az.’ ”

Moshe learned that what seems to be a bitter or difficult situation can become a turning point, a catalyst for salvation. Even a sin can ultimately bring the perpetrator to a higher level of righteousness if it jolts him into recognizing his failure, identifying its source, and actualizing its reparation.

Clearly, the theme of Marah is that of remedy, of what’s termed hamtakas hadinim, the sweetening of a verdict: turning bitter into sweet, sickness into healing, sin into rectification. Until today, we invoke Marah when we pray, during Bircas Kohanim, for an antidote to bad dreams: And if our dreams require healing, cure them as the waters of Marah.

The Mitzvos of Marah

Since Torah is the ultimate agent of rectification, it’s fitting that at Marah the nation was given specific mitzvos as a prelude to Matan Torah. Rashi specifies the mitzvos that were given at Marah: Shabbos, civil laws, and Parah Adumah, the red cow whose ashes are mixed with water and used to purify an individual who became tamei l’meis, ritually impure due to contact with a corpse.

Why were these particular mitzvos singled out? Perhaps Shabbos and civil laws are understandable choices — they’re foundations of our emunah and society. But why Parah Adumah?

Parah Adumah’s outstanding feature is its classification as a chok, a mitzvah with no rational explanation. With the words “zos chukas haTorah,” (Bamidbar 19:2) the Torah labels this mitzvah as the most classic of all chukim. This is because it contains a unique paradox: While it purifies the person who became tamei l’meis, at the same time it confers tumah on the Kohein who sprinkles it. In the pithy words of Chazal: the Parah Adumah is metaher temei’im and metamei tehorim — it purifies those who are impure, and brings impurity upon the pure.

How was this a fitting preparation for Matan Torah? The best training for a life of Torah and mitzvos begins with the understanding that our own senses and logic are not reliable. Would we have thought that something bitter can sweeten, and that ashes that purify can also defile? We cannot always differentiate bitter and sweet, and we often cannot understand the workings and effects of the mitzvos. We can only defer to the absolute wisdom of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

This gives us a new understanding as to why the mitzvah of Shabbos was included in the lessons of Marah. The Kli Yakar writes that just as Shabbos reminds us that Hashem created the world yeish mei’ayin, so too the sweetening of the waters by a bitter agent bears testimony that “something” can come from “nothing.”

Shabbos, notes Rav Eliyahu Kitov, is also the mekor habrachah, the source of all blessings, including our sustenance. The concept that our idleness on Shabbos can actually bring parnassah demonstrates again that sweet results can emanate from the most unlikely catalyst.

Hashem, Your Healer

In truth, there are no catalysts, no agents, no natural causes and effects. There is only Hashem — Creator, Agent, Cause — and Healer. The Kli Yakar points out how fitting it is that at Marah, Hashem is referred to as “your Healer” (Shemos 15:26). Often, a patient doesn’t comprehend the intricacies of his doctor’s treatment plan; he hasn’t the medical background to evaluate its efficacy. Fortunately, the healing process does not depend on the patient’s knowledge. Instead, the patient needs to trust the doctor’s recommendations and follow his instructions meticulously — even when the therapy is challenging and the medicine bitter.

Rashi questions why Hashem is called “Healer” in the very verse that states that He will not bring the illnesses of Mitzrayim. He explains that this refers to the prophylactic power of Torah and mitzvos, to the doctor who counsels preventative care. If we heed Hashem’s Will, we won’t get sick.

The Malbim interprets this pasuk from a different perspective. “Healer” refers to a doctor who treats ailments. Hashem sometimes needs to punish us for our moral illnesses, but never with the punishments of Mitzrayim, which were visited upon Egyptians to destroy them. In contrast, the punishments sent to Klal Yisrael are always to heal them, just as a doctor must sometimes inflict pain in order to cure an illness. This is the real meaning of the bitter tree that facilitated sweet results. As Moshe discovered, with the very punishment He smites us, He cures us.

Indeed, one of the components of Hashem’s system of discipline for Klal Yisrael is “Refuah lifnei hamakkah — the cure is prepared before the punishment.” This rule is significant because it indicates that the objective of the punishment is the cure, to bring us to teshuvah and salvation. The cure is therefore always conceptualized first.

Thus, the messages of Marah, the sweetening of the waters, the mitzvos received there, and the appellation of Hashem as Healer, paved the way for Matan Torah. With these insights, a short time later Klal Yisrael were able to declare, “Naaseh v’nishma — we will do and we will listen,” essentially signing the contract for Torah without reading the fine print, for they felt confident in Hashem’s plan.

Source of All Sweetness

The year begins with sweetness and a prayer. But it’s not only the beginning of the year that is celebrated with sweetness and honey. Rav Shimshon Pincus points out that sweets are customarily distributed at different occasions and milestones throughout the year. Think: the honeyed alef-beis at an upsheren, the candy bags tossed at a chassan called up to the Torah, and the treats given in shul on Simchas Torah. The message is clear: A life of Torah is the source of everything sweet in our lives.

And the prayer? It, too, continues throughout the year. Not only on special occasions, but daily, we ask for ourselves, and for our children: V’ha’areiv na Hashem Elokeinu es divrei Toras’cha b’finu — Please, Hashem, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouths. In our mouths — from the very first taste. And may our palates never lose or confuse the flavor of tovah u’mesukah.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 575. Sources include writings of Rav Chaim Friedlander.
Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz is a teacher at Bais Yaakov Seminary in Montreal, and is a popular lecturer for adults.