Where the Wood Meets Water
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Arguably, no other Torah portion is as intimately aligned with water as Parashat B'shalah. From the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, to the sweetening of the bitter waters at Marah, to the rock at Refidim giving forth water, B'shalah oozes at every juncture.
Moreover, the shabbat upon which the parashah is read is referred to as Shabbat Shira--the Sabbath of Song--ostensibly referring to shirat hayam, the song sung by Moses and The Children of Israel at the sea. Perhaps a bolder, albeit wholly defensible translation of the phrase shirat hayam is "the sea's song" as reflected by the Psalmist, "yir'am hayam umlo'oh (Psalm 96)"--let the very sea and its fullness roar.
Water & the Patriarchs
The waters of B'shalah flow from an earlier source. There has always been a nuanced, water-based undercurrent artfully interwoven into the history of the Israelites since the days of the patriarchs and before.
Recall the wells of Abraham and Isaac, the watering holes where Eliezer encountered Rebekah (Genesis 24:17) and where Jacob first encountered Rachel (Genesis 29:2), and later the watering troughs where Jacob's sheep miraculously multiplied (Genesis 30:38).
Consider further if you will Joseph's water journey-- beginning in an empty pit, notably devoid of water (Genesis 37:24), and culminating in Pharaoh's dreams of the Nile (Genesis 41:1) which eerily foreshadow the increasingly prominent role that will be played by the Nile throughout Exodus.
The Incident at Marah
The Jewish water experience clearly reaches a triumphant crescendo in B'shalah. After the magnificent and manifest miracle of the Red Sea, however, the incident at Marah remains cryptic and elusive. To recap briefly, the Jews arrive thirsty at Marah and cannot drink because the waters are bitter. "Vayorehu Hashem etz"--God instructs Moses to take a certain wood and throw it in the water: the waters are sweetened (Exodus 15:25).
The Midrash offers several opinions as to the nature of the wood utilized by Moses to provoke such a response. Rabbi Joshua (a charcoal maker by trade) posited that it was willow. Rabbi Natan said it was a type of bitter ivy. Rabbi Elazar Hamoda'i surmised that it was an olive tree. Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha hypothesized that it was a thistle bush. To all opinions, the consensus seems to be that the wood was bitter (Tanhuma Exodus 24).
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