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Beshallach/Shira 5782      January 15, 2022 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     On the one hand, Sisterhood Shabbat is a relic of the past, when women had a second-class role in the synagogue, and this was their only path to community leadership. They tell a story that when Mathilda Schechter, the wife of the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the founder of United Synagogue, founded the Women’s League, her husband and all the men leaders of the new movement thought it was a quaint way to keep the women busy. They said that Women’s League would never be an important part of the movement. They had no idea at that time what a powerhouse organization it would become.

     Today, when women take their place in all levels of community leadership, one would think that there would be no need for a separate women’s organization anymore. For that matter, why would we need a Brotherhood either? But Sisterhood has proven to be as important today as it was over a century ago. I smile every time someone who needs seed money to start a new project here at our synagogue, the first place they ask is if Sisterhood can help them fund the project.

     But there is more. Sisterhood remains important in our egalitarian world because while women have access to leadership, that does not mean that they have the same spiritual needs as the men. Women see the world in a unique way, a way different from men, and that insight and point of view is critical to understanding the way our community is built. Women have their own Torah to teach, and our synagogue would be very much poorer without its teachings.

     Parshat Beshallach has some important lessons. Primary to all of them is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. It can be argued that this crossing represents the climax not only of the Exodus story, and not only to the book of Shemot, but it is the high point of the entire Torah. It is the paradigm of all miracles and it forever casts God as the great Redeemer of our people. At the end of the Parsha is another famous story, that of the attack by Amalek on the back of the Israelites march, where the weak and the stragglers could be found. The Amalekites are beaten in battle. Moses holds his hands high, and Israel is victorious. When he lowers his hands, they are beaten back. Aaron and Hur then seat Moses on a rock and they then hold Moses’s hands high until Israel beats back the Amalekite invaders. We are then commanded to blot out the Amalekite people for their war crimes and to never forget the atrocities they committed.

     But between these two stories is a different kind of story about our ancestors. Just after the miracle at the sea, three days later and the people are already questioning God’s guidance as they find themselves in a desert in need of water. They finally find water, but it is not potable water. It is bitter to taste and undrinkable. Moses is frustrated and angry. Every time there is a problem, Moses endures most of the complaining. After all, Moses never wanted this job and God insisted he take it. This is just another example of how ungrateful the people are and how insecure Moses is about leading them. Not only is the water bitter but so is Moses. Moses cannot understand why God has created water that is so bitter when sweet water is what is needed in the desert.

     The irony of this story is that the Hebrew word used to describe the bitter water is the same verb uses to describe the bitterness of slavery. Clearly being thirsty is not as bitter as leading the life of a slave. The people of Israel had experienced one miracle after another and still they are bitter at the waters called “Mara,” Bitter. If God can save them from the bitterness of slavery, God can certainly save them from some bitter water.

     God shows Moses a piece of wood that, when cast into the water, makes the water sweet. It is a small miracle, but it does quench the thirst of the complaining people. It is a small miracle, but we still must answer the question; why is it important enough to be included in our Torah? What lesson is here that we need to learn?

     Ilana Kurshan, a scholar who teaches in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva, wrote in a devar Torah from the yeshiva, “In the Torah, God responds to Moshe’s cry by showing him a piece of wood which he can throw in the water to make it sweet. The midrash explains that God is trying to teach Moshe a lesson that can serve the people lifelong. God begins by objecting to Moshe’s request to undo the creation of the waters: “Don’t say that. Are they not the work of my hands? Is there anything in the world that was not created for a purpose? Rather, I will teach you what you should say. Say this: Make the bitter sweet.” There is no way to get rid of the bitterness; it is a part of the created world. The Israelites will continue to experience bitterness even after having escaped Egyptian bondage. But they can learn how to make the bitter sweet. As free people, they will have the power to change their circumstances so that the bitterness does not define the entirety of their experience.”

 

     The Hebrew song, “Al Kol Eleh” by Naomi Shemer has this as its chorus…

Al kol eleh, al kol eleh,
Shmor nah li eyli hatov
Al hadvash ve'al ha'okets
Al hamar vehamatok.

For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.

 

     The world is created with both bitter and sweet. Roses have thorns, bees make honey, but they also sting. We often complain about the sting, the bitter, and forget the good that comes along with it. Our lesson here is that there are bitter things in the world. There are things we do not like, things that are hard, things that make us frustrated and angry. That is the nature of God’s world, and we need to understand that.

     Think about this pandemic we are suffering. The illness that comes with the Coronavirus is bad enough that it makes us sick, so extremely sick, that millions of people have already died and thousands more die every day. But that this virus also comes with variants, so that every time we think we have reached the end of this pandemic, we must face a bitter truth that we still need our masks, distancing, vaccinations, and quarantines. I would not blame anyone for sounding like Moses wondering why we are living in such a world and what is the purpose of such a virus. As a rabbi, dare I even ask, “what can we learn from this time of pandemic?” Where is the sweet to go with this bitterness?

     The answer to that question is not found in your rabbi, it is found in each one of us. As Ms. Kurshan notes, it is our duty to make the bitter sweet. Moses is shown a piece of wood that will sweeten the bitter waters. It takes human action to turn something bitter into something sweet.

     The bitter waters become known by the name: Mara – Bitterness. It has become part of the history of our ancestors in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The Israelites gain knowledge there from God about how to live as a free people. But they also leave with an important lesson. Ms. Kurshan concludes: “The lessons of Marah, then, are manifold. In addition to the series of laws that God gave to the people, God also showed them how to adjust to life as free people. As the people learn, freedom does not obliterate bitterness, but it does give us the agency to be able to sweeten some of the bitter moments. Likewise, freedom does not mean liberation from all constraint, but rather the opportunity to infuse our lives with structure and purpose. These lessons may go hand in hand – by shaping our lives in accordance with the Torah’s values and enriching our lives with its rituals, we may find that our bitter moments become sweeter. We may find ourselves receptive to miracles not just at life’s rare and climactic moments, but also at the many wilderness encampments along the way.”

     I find myself impressed here with the knowledge that we, in our time and place, still need to learn the lessons our ancestors took away from Mara. Life does not owe us anything. We must learn to take the good with the bad, the honey and the sting, the bitter with the sweet. The waters of Mara can be compared to our Torah, often compared to water, as our source of life, and it serves as a reminder that we have been given the power to turn what is bitter into something sweet, and that is also not just a capacity but a responsibility in life.

     Sisterhood is certainly NOT a relic of the past. The women who drink from the waters that Sisterhood offers find meaning and spirit in Judaism’s waters. What may, on the outside seem old and stale, if you will, bitter, is made sweet and alive by the women who are here today. They have not only taken on the mantle of leadership in our community, but they have taken hold of some of the most difficult mitzvot of Judaism: Reading Torah, Reading Haftara, leading a service, and representing, as Shelichat Tzibor, the people of this congregation as we gather to send our prayers to heaven, to God.

     The role of women in our society has grown and matured, and so have the women who come together as sisters in our sisterhood. They strengthen each other, teach each other, set examples for each other, and support each other as they face their future as citizens and as Jews.

     May God bless these amazing women, physically and spiritually strong, as they stand up every day to face whatever life may bring them, both the honey and the sting, as they make all of life joyful and sweet, and may we all drink from the waters of life so that all of us, brothers and sisters, feel God’s blessing, as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783