It is so easy, and so common, to be filled with bitterness. But we yearn so desperately for sweetness. When Moses turns the bitter waters sweet, he gives us a clue to how we can escape the bitterness of our own daily lives.
Turning the Bitter to Sweet
“It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.”
For centuries they were enslaved, and now they had escaped. They followed a miracle-worker out of the house of bondage, passing through the walls that once had held them prisoner. Their chains were broken, their adversaries destroyed, as they took their first unsteady steps into freedom.
And so they sang. They danced. They ate the bread baking on their backs and lifted their children high to gaze upon a wilderness untamed by mortar and brick. With spirits soaring, they set forth into a new life.
But three days in a desert devoid of food or drink can crush a soul that desperately yearns to survive. “Have we come here only to die?” they ask one another. “Will our liberation be our death? Rather, let us return to Egypt – its slavemasters are drowned and its land ripe for the taking.”
Before these grumblings could grow too loud, water was discovered: a giant spring, flowing deeply enough to slake the thirst of every tired Israelite. Those who traveled at the front of the line shouted to those in the back, “Fear not and rejoice! Water lies ahead!”
But when they approached the spring, behold!—the water was bitter, unfit for human tongue. “And the people murmured against Moses, saying ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24). And they called the place Marah, meaning “bitter,” for bitter were the waters—and their souls (Ex. 15:23).
This is a journey traversed by every one of us: from hardship, to celebration, to profound disappointment. Bitterness, sadly, is not reserved for Pesach; and more often than we like, we find ourselves surrounded by it. Bitterness can paralyze us, or it can make us turn against those we wish we could trust. It threatens to make us forget victory and hope and obscures the sweetness of our freedom.
How many of us sit with bitterness in our mouths right now, tainting our daily lives and even our celebration of Shabbat? It’s a taste that’s hard to overcome, making us cynical or snide, more likely to lash out than to love. Like the Hebrews, we are desperate for deliverance; but we cannot proceed without overcoming the bitterness.
Our story continues by turning to Moses, whose guidance we might bring into our own lives today.
“So Moses cried out to the Eternal, and God showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet” (Ex. 15:25).
What manner of wood was this? Some say willow, others olive, and still others laurel or the roots of fig. But from whatever tree, the wood that turned the water sweet was itself bitter. This teaches us that spiritual healing comes from the same place as spiritual hardship—as God says: “I will restore health unto you; from your very wounds shall I heal you” (Jeremiah 30:17).  A bitter branch, transformed by love, brought sweetness to all it touched.
And the story concludes: “And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there beside the water” (Ex. 15:27).
Through walls of water the Hebrews were redeemed, through bitter waters they nearly died, and through fresh and flowing springs they once again found life. Tradition tells us that God has the power to transform the bitter into sweet, for the source of bitterness and the source of sweetness are often one and the same.
But tradition also tells us that God cannot do it alone. We learn in the Talmud that here, at Marah, God first gave the laws of Shabbat.  But not only that: this was also the place where the social laws, the mishpatim—ordinances of social welfare and justice—were first laid down. Shabbat and mishpat, delivered together, a sacred and dynamic pair.
This is a recipe we all can use, each in our own way, to overcome the bitterness in our lives. On the one hand, we have Shabbat, which represents the rituals and traditions of Judaism that have for centuries grounded our people in gratitude. And on the other hand we have mishpatim, the demands of a just society, which call us urgently to involve ourselves in the affairs of the world. Both are found here at this site of bitterness, and both are its transformation. To grumble and grouse is to remain locked in the mindset of slavery, to go thirsty by the waters of Marah. But to use the very stuff of bitterness around us—whatever that may be in each of our lives—and to turn it to sweetness through Jewish ritual and public action: that is the path to freedom.
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked,” wrote the poet Kahlil Gibran.
And the selfsame well
from which your laughter rises
was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
May this Shabbat be a reminder of the first, in which the bitter became sweet. May we move away from cynicism and hostility to discover within ourselves the power to transform. And as we “drink from the love of goodness,” let us “cleanse our hearts to serve life well.”
 This line is from the poem “So Much Happiness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye. It is quoted here without attribution only because the full poem has already been shared—with attribution—prior to the delivery of this sermon.
 Zohar 2:60a.
 Exodus Rabbah 50:3.
 BT Sanhedrin 56b.
 “On Joy and Sorrow.”
 From a poem by Richard Levy, found in Mishkan T’filah, p. 237/355.
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