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Torah Tuesdays with Hennie Black- Parshat Beshalach



Parshat Beshalach tells the story of the Jewish people’s taste for freedom after more than 200 hundreds years of slavery. They cross the Reed Sea, witness the most amazing miracles, and have complete belief and awe of G-d—at least for a short while.

Unfortunately, in spite of the open miracles, their faith falters once again. In the desert, they suffer thirst and hunger and repeatedly complain to Moshe and Aaron that they would have been better off remaining as slaves in Egypt.

Arriving to a place called Marah, the Jewish people, parched and disgruntled, finally find water after travelling for three long days. Their excitement is short-lived, however, as the Torah explains that “they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter.”

Moshe is told by G-d to “sweeten the water” by throwing a tree into the water, which would miraculously sweeten it. Why a tree? Did the tree have inherent miraculous power? Or could the same have been accomplished had Moshe thrown in a rock?

G-d specifically chose a tree because it is a living thing. A tree is a part of nature that grows and dies. It blossoms, rejuvenates, and decays. It goes through processes and stages, depending on the elements around it. It never stays the same, always changing, always evolving.

The message conveyed by the tree is this: when all looks futile and bleak, desolate and dead, rebirth, renewal and rejuvenation are always possibilities. The takeaway is that the Jewish people that should not give up; the situation can turn around. Things may be challenging and hard but G-d is with them.

This lesson is conveyed in the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the new year for the trees.  We celebrate the new year for the trees in the dead of winter when the branches are bare and cold. 

Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate the trees when they are blossoming and producing fruit? Actually, no. Because it is at this time of the year that the sap starts to rise within the tree. Even though the tree may look bare from the outside, inside the tree things are happening. Tu B’Shvat reminds us of the possibilities that grow within all of us and the process of rejuvenation.

Looking at a more homiletic approach to understanding the word “bitter,” the Kotzker Rebbe teaches us that this word can be understood to describe the Jewish people, rather than the water.

In essence, the rebbe is imparting a cautionary message, saying, “G-d can perform miracles for you. He can provide you with all your needs, but, at the end of the day, how you receive it depends on you. If you are bitter, everything will look negative and bad, no matter what the reality.

Perception is reality. Two people will look at the same glass; some see it half empty; some half full.  Some see roses; some see thorns. What we see determines how we experience the world—whether we experience fulfillment or misery; satisfaction or deprivation.

There is a well-known story that highlights the power of perception. There was a man, who, facing a great deal of hardship, sought advice from his rebbe to help him cope with his life.

The rabbi told him to meet Reb Zushe of Anipoli. He would be able to teach this man how to see things in a positive light. The man traveled to Reb Zushe’s house and was shocked to discover that the rebbe lived in a dilapidated little shack.  He knocked on the door and Reb Zushe opened it with a warm and welcoming smile.

The ceiling was leaking; there was little to no furniture; there was no heat, and Reb Zushe was dressed in rags. The man turned to Reb Zushe and asked him to teach him how to live life with a positive attitude.

Reb Zushe answered, “How can I teach you to accept hardships easily? For that you must go to someone that is experiencing hardships. I have everything I need, so it’s easy for me to feel gratitude and see everything in a positive light.”

We all have our ups and downs, good days and challenging days. But when we are down and bitter, we must take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is it life that is so bitter, or are we bitter?” Sweetness doesn’t happen to us, it happens because of us. It requires a shift in our mindset, an intentional focus on what is good in our life.

May we all enjoy the sweetness of our lives. Shabbat Shalom.

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