They had witnessed the ten plagues hurled against Egypt, waded through the parted waters of the Red Sea and watched their pursuers drowned in a miraculous deliverance. But only three days journey into the wilderness, at a place called Marah with only bitter water to drink, the people began to murmur against Moses. Not long thereafter they would long for the fleshpots of Egypt and cry out, “Would that we had died in Egypt at the hand of the Lord.”
On the bank of the Red Sea, the people sang praises to God, but not a week into their journey and already they felt free to express their resentment, grievances and displeasure. The Israelites should have been the most grateful, faithful people in the world. How to explain our ancestor’s unflattering and somewhat embarrassing behavior?
Parashat Beshalach tells us that three days journey from the Red Sea the Israelites ‘came to Marah’ - a place that took it’s name from the bitter water found there. The Hebrew word marah means ‘bitterness’ lending the verse to two possible translations. (1) They (the Israelites) came to (a place called) Marah or (2) They (the Israelites) came (to feel) embittered. The Torah’s use of the language is masterful.
The Israelites had endured 400 years of cruel bondage and oppression. The Egyptians had ‘embittered their lives with mortar and brick.’ Yes they had been released from slavery, but why had it taken God so long to act? Why had they been forced to suffer so much? When the exhilarating moment of liberation passed, anger and resentment for all they had endured came right to the surface.
Bitterness begins with hurt and builds on the emotional pain that follows; and left to fester, that hurt and subsequent anger eventually become the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness. When a person continually rehearses how he or she has been victimized, mistreated or offended, those wrongs eventually come to define some essential part of who the person is. The generation that left Egypt never discarded its slave mentality and carried the burden and bitterness of that identity throughout their wanderings. Obsessed with blaming someone (or something) else for their misery—rather than refusing to permit external hindrances or setbacks from blocking them from pursuing their goal - prevented the physically liberated Israelites from experiencing the potential joys of living in the freedom of the present.
In Beshalach, God shows Moses how to sweeten the bitterness of Marah by tossing a piece of wood into the brackish water. Nowadays, modern counselors posit forgiveness as the ultimate remedy for those beset by the emotional condition. Forgiveness is never easy, but when a person ‘comes to bitterness’ learning to forgive - with or without loving compassion - facilitates recovery from a wound that, while it may have originated from outside the self, has been kept alive (and even “nurtured”) from within. “And it can hardly be overemphasized that when you decide to forgive a perceived wrongdoer, you do so not so much for them but for you.”
If only our Israelite ancestors had developed a new way of looking at their past by maintaining focus on their evolving present and holding on to the vision of their Promised Land. A lesson many of their descendents would do well to ponder and embrace.
It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness, and a mood of helplessness prevail.” Lech Walesa
“Bitterness is like taking poison and hoping your enemy will die.”