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Exalted Water

A Drop of Torah

If you want to talk about water in the Torah, this week's Parsha, Beshalach, is the real deal. It's go big or go home. There are several contexts in which water is mentioned, but to see how it relates to us today, we need to look at them separately. The first water event is the epic story of when God parted the Red Sea. Whether you know it from the text itself, the Movie (the Ten Commandments), or the cartoon (the Prince of Egypt), there's no denying that this is probably the most dramatic event in the Torah. OK, maybe the Revelation at Sinai was more awesome, but for sheer dramatic effect… Parting of the Red Sea takes it.

Allow me to set the stage. After experiencing all of the Ten Plagues, Pharoah is done with the Jews and our God. He finally relents and lets our people go free from slavery. We pack up all of our belongings, as well as the gold and jewelry that the Egyptians "miraculously" hand over to us, and head off into the wilderness. When we reach the shores of the Red Sea, we set up camp. But again, Pharoah's heart was hardened, and he changed his mind. He set out with his entire army to either bring us back as slaves or kill us. As Pharoah and his army bore down upon the Jews, the people were afraid and cried out to Moses:

'Because there were no graves in Egypt, you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us? Didn't we say to you: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than to die in the wilderness.' - Ex. 14:11-12

To which Moses responded (Insert booming voice ala Charleton Heston):

"Fear not. Stand fast and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will perform for you. For whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again. The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.' - Ex. 14:13-14

And then, in probably the most shocking plot twist ever, God said to Moses:

"Moses! Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Children of Israel to go. Lift up your staff and stretch out your arm over the Sea and divide it."- Ex. 14:15-16

The Second Miracle

A closer reading of the text tells us that it was not God who parted the Red Sea. It was Moses. For the sake of brevity, I won't go into all the details and events that are expounded upon after this in the commentaries, the Midrash and the Zohar, but hold onto that thought that it was Moses who parted the Sea. Suffice it to say, however, that when the Israelites stood on the far shore of the Sea when the Egyptian army was decimated, and our people were finally free, Miriam (the sister of Moses) and all the women began to dance, and they sang the famous "Shirat HaYam" the Song of the Sea.

The second water event occurred three days after the miraculous showing at the Red Sea when the Israelites arrived at a place called Marah. After 3 days of walking through the desert, the people were hot and dehydrated. Unfortunately, the water at Marah was bitter and undrinkable. In fact, the name Marah means "bitter." The people cried to Moses, מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה "what will we drink?" Moses then cried out to God, Who showed him a tree which Moses promptly threw into the water, and the water became pure. Another miracle or reverse osmosis? Either way, the people had water to drink and they were satisfied… for now.

The Third Miracle

At the end of the Parsha, the people have again been moving through the Sinai desert and again found themselves without water and again complained to Moses: תְּנוּ-לָנוּ מַיִם וְנִשְׁתֶּה "Give us water to drink... Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?" - Ex.17:2-3

Moses was so frustrated he said to God: "What should I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!" In response, God told Moses to strike a rock (not to be confused with the other rock-striking situation later in the Torah), and water would come forth from the Rock. This is the origin of what came to be known as Miriam's Well, the well that travelled with and provided water for the Israelites during our 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. The Well is named for Miriam because of her association with water. You'll recall that Miriam watched over Moses as an infant when he was put in a basket and set adrift on the Nile. She followed him in the bullrushes to make sure he was safe. It was Miriam who led the women in song and dance after the parting of the Red Sea, and later in the Torah, when Miriam dies, the text says she was buried, and the Israelites had no water.


So Miriam is associated with water, but interestingly, her name מִרְיָם translates as "Bitter Sea." How is that possible? Well, like the Sea itself, we need to look beneath the surface to understand all of the water events in this parsha. On the surface, it seems like God performed all the miracles surrounding the water. Upon closer reading, however, it wasn't God. It was Moses. Moses parted the Sea. Moses sweetened the water of Marah. And Moses struck the rock to bring forth water. It wasn't miracles. It was a committed, passionate, intelligent leader.

As for Miriam, if we look at the state of water around the world, we do indeed see "bitter sea." Like the Israelites at Marah, our drinking water is contaminated (I highly recommend Seth Siegel's book "Troubled Water" to learn just how contaminated our drinking water really is), the rivers of the world are polluted, and the Ocean is dying from overfishing, ocean acidification, warming sea temperatures, sonic pollution, dead zones and much more. It's a very sad state, but, if we look beneath the surface, if we change our perspective, we can change מִרְיָם "the Bitter Sea."

In fact, by changing how we look at it, if we read Miriam's name backwards, it reads מֵירָם, or "exalted water." What we need today are leaders who can look differently at water and the global aquatic environment and not see the Bitter Sea but rather the Exalted Water. We need leaders who are not afraid of the Pharaohs in our midst. Leaders who will stand up to the powerful to make a difference. Leaders who won't accept the status quo as it kills the Ocean and the rivers of the world and the living souls within them. And if not our leaders… then us. Each of us, through our actions, the decisions we make every day, and the products we purchase can make a difference.

Together, each of us can do our part to reverse the Bitter Sea and turn it into Exalted Water.


Feb 04, 2023

Jacques Cousteau....I wonder how he would feel if he knew about the state of our marine environment on eart

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal
Feb 14, 2023
Replying to

I think he would be incredibly disappointed.

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