The lasting burden of slavery
Parashat Beshalach picks up the story soon after the Israelites have left Egypt. As they come to the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, they discover that Pharaoh is chasing after them with 600 chariots carrying armed men.
The Israelites panic, but Moses reassures them, saying “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.” And what does God do? “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.’”
The Israelites do move forward and God performs another miracle — the sea divides and the Israelites are able to cross on dry land. And when the Egyptians pursue them, the sea closes up and Pharaoh and his army drown. Moses and the Israelites then sing Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, in praise and thanksgiving.
But things quickly return to what will become “normal.” The Israelites are surrounded by miracles, but they don’t appear to be affected in any significant way. Over and over they see the hand of God miraculously protecting and caring for them, but within a short time they have apparently forgotten it.
Three days after they sing at the sea, the people are complaining again, this time because the water they have found was too bitter to drink. The Torah says, “They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah ‘ki marim heim’ (because it was bitter).”
The Hebrew work for water is “mayim,” which is actually a plural form, so it takes plural verbs, adjectives, and pronouns. The phrase “ki marim heim,” appropriately translated here as “because it was bitter,” can also be translated literally as “because they were bitter.”
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, suggests that “ki marim heim” really doesn’t mean that the water was bitter, but that the people were. It was their attitude that made them see the world in negative terms — that is, because the people were bitter, they found fault with the water.
Three days after being filled with awe and wonder at God’s deliverance when they crossed the sea and saw their enemies drown, three days after singing and dancing in joy and gratitude, only three days later, the Israelites had reverted to self-pity. They complained — it’s too hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, how come she gets to ride and I have to walk, are we there yet? Once more they whined, “why didn’t we just stay in Egypt?” Wherever they turned, they found something they could complain about.
Ultimately, God would realize that most of the people who had left Egypt were so damaged by the experience of slavery that they were unable to transform themselves into a free people capable of fighting for and settling their new land. It was only after four decades of wandering in the wilderness that the next generation would be ready and able to conquer and settle the Promised Land.
The generation of the wilderness would not enter the land. No wonder they found the water bitter!