Two chassidim from Odessa once traveled to their rebbe in pursuit of a blessing. In a private audience, the first one was asked, “How are things in Odessa? Are the young people pious? Are they passionate in their service of G‑d?” The chassid gave great reviews, and left with many blessings. Upon exiting the rebbe’s room, he described his encounter to his fellow countryman who was on his way in to see the Rebbe.

The second chassid from Odessa was asked the same questions as the first. In his response, he painted a very bleak picture. “The young people in town lack spiritual refinement, and idle away their time. Their prayer is listless, and their study lacks enthusiasm . . .” When he finished his depressing report, the rebbe signaled that their meeting was over.

Disturbed that he hadn’t received a blessing, he exclaimed, “But Rebbe, how is that fair? My friend gives you a romanticized report about Odessa and walks out with a blessing, and I give you the honest, albeit brutal, account and leave emptyhanded?”

The rebbe responded, “Do you think I don’t know the spiritual state of affairs in Odessa? What I was really asking your friend and then yourself was: what is your spiritual state of affairs in Odessa . . . ?”

Bitter Waters

Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert, but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah, because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah.1.”

Rabbi Yehoshua says: The waters were sweet to begin with. Then they became bitter temporarily, until they were sweetened again.2

According to Rabbi Yehoshua, these were not bitter waters before the Israelites showed up; they became undrinkable upon the Israelites’ arrival at Marah. But why would G‑d intentionally provoke the tired and thirsty nation of Israel, by making their drinking water bitter?

The story’s continuation provides an additional difficulty:

The people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the L‑rd, and the L‑rd instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.3.”

Rabbi Eliezer Hamodai said: This piece of wood was an olive branch, for there is nothing as bitter as an olive branch. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah said: This was a blade of oleander [a poisonous shrub].4

One wonders why these sages parted from their peers, who posited the obvious: that a sweet item5 tempered the bitter waters, making them drinkable.

Yet another puzzling item about this narrative is the fact that the place is later named Marah, “Bitter.” But why would the Torah want to emphasize and eternalize G‑d’s scheme of embitterment? The place could just as well have been called “Sweet,” after the story’s sweet ending.

A Matter of Perception

On the verse, “They could not drink water from Marah, because it was bitter,” the Maggid of Mezeritch makes the following linguistic observation. When translated literally, the Hebrew words for “because it was bitter,” ki marim heim, actually mean: “because they were bitter.” According to this teaching, the real reason that the water at Marah was undrinkable was because the Israelites, not the water, were bitter!6

(I’m reminded of one enlightening children’s tale, where a little bird travels the world looking for a nice-smelling haven and pleasant-smelling friends, until he realizes that the bad odor he had always smelled emanating from others was coming, in fact, from a piece of rotten garbage stuck to his own nose . . .)

This point can be understood on both spiritual and psychological levels.

On the psychological level, the people were in an ugly mood, and correspondingly perceived ugliness in everything they encountered.7 Their mood had been set by a horrible week. It began with them being forced by Moses to cut short their bounty-gathering on the bank of the Sea of Reeds. While a fortune was to be made from the floating remains of the flamboyant Egyptian army gone under, Moses had stressed that Mount Sinai was waiting.

And days later they were at their wits’ end, having traveled through the desert of Shur for three days without water. They were frustrated with Moses, and just a tad angry with his Boss. They were stressed out and looking to vent.

Vent they did, according to the verse: “The people complained against [not to] Moses.”

The biblical commentator Rashi has this to say about the prevailing mood of the Jews: “They did not consult with Moses using gracious language, saying, ‘Pray on our behalf that there should be water for us to drink.’ Rather, ‘they complained.’”

They looked for, and found, something to complain about. The water tasted much like their mood. To be sure, the water was “objectively” bitter, but since when is the experience of taste objective?

A charming chassidic story comes to mind. A chassid once asked his rebbe for advice on dealing with life’s challenges. “Go see Reb Zushe in Anipoli,” he was told. “He is a master of challenge.”

Reb Zushe was by far the poorest man in town. In financial terms, he was “objectively” and abjectly penniless. Cold, hunger and illness were constants in his home. The rebbe had chosen well. Here was a sufferer by all standards.

Imagine the chassid’s surprise when, in answer to his request for tips on dealing with life’s difficulties, a bewildered Reb Zushe responded, “Difficulties? I’m afraid I can’t help you. I’ve never had a difficult day in my life. Pain, suffering, poverty? You must be looking for someone else . . .”

The power of Reb Zushe was not that he overcame his suffering; it’s that he didn’t see suffering to begin with.

Thus, while the water could have been bitter, it could also have been not. Sweetness need not have been imparted or imported for the waters to become drinkable; a change of mind, mode and mood could equally have done the job.

On the spiritual level, too, the cure is in the mind.

“They walked for three days in the desert but did not find water.”

Water is a reference to Torah, says the Midrash.8 Thus, metaphorically, the verse teaches that for three days the study of G‑d’s Word was neglected. According to one interpretation, then, physical water was withheld from the Jews because they stopped partaking of spiritual waters.

A kinder interpretation has it that this was not punishment, but cause and effect. The undrinkable waters of Marah reflected the spiritual state of the people. They had run empty on meaning; they were spiritually void and thirsty, and therefore bitter. That was the cause. The effect was that the water was “undrinkable”—it left their thirst unquenched. For it wasn’t physical hydration they were after; it was their soul crying out for nourishment.

No wonder Moses was the subject of complaint. The integrity of sacred symbols, traditions and leaders are often attacked by people when they themselves are spiritually lacking. (Perhaps this is their unknowing way of reaching out, of trying to establish a connection?)

So, how does one fill an emptiness of spirit? How does one quench the thirst of a soul?

Believe it or not, the answer is simple.

“The L‑rd instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water . . .”

The Torah is called the Tree of Life.9 “Take a piece of it,” says G‑d, “just one thought, a nugget, and ‘cast it into the water,’ taste it, dwell on it, process and apply it to your life, and ‘the water will become sweet’—your soul will be nourished, and your inner peace will be restored.”

That’s one solution: sweet and intuitive.

But there’s another, more challenging, option. Take a bitter olive branch, a poisonous oleander, and harness its healing powers. Recognize that the spiritual thirst itself, the depth of its yearning, the power of its want, is all itself part of the sweetening process.

Then name the place of your life’s spiritual drama “Bitter.” Internalize and utilize the power of Bitter, the extraordinary force created by the voids in your life, and drink of it even—or especially—when life’s waters are sweet.

What’s in It for Me?

“We all look at the same world, but what we see depends on who we are.”—R’ Isaac of Homil

We can find a good example of the power of perspective and mindset in Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning. In this book, he makes the case that one can transcend one’s negative circumstances through one’s frame of mind. Amazingly, this empowering and uplifting book was born and developed in the bitter death camp of Auschwitz, in the “Marah” of world history. The circumstances of this book’s origin teach us that something sweet can emerge from something bitter.

More for Me . . .

Next time you’re feeling inexplicably restless, anxious, or especially complaintful, you may just be suffering from a bout of soul-undernourishment. Open up a Jewish book, discuss Torah with a friend, and let your soul drink up. L’chaim! To life!

(Inspired by the farbrengen of 15 Shevat, 5720 (Torat Menachem, vol. 27, pp. 361–363)