Parashat Maseh: It’s All in the Attitude
In the beginning of Parashat Maseh, the Torah lists the different stations where Beneh Yisrael encamped during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. One of the places listed is Mara, which literally means "bitter." After Beneh Yisrael left Mara, we are told, they encamped in a place called Elim, where they found twelve springs of water and seventy date trees (33:9).
This account gives us the opportunity to analyze the events that took place in Mara and Elim as told earlier in the Torah, and to draw the life lessons that these events teach us.
In the Book of Shemot (15:23), the Torah relates that after traveling for three days without finding a water source, Beneh Yisrael finally discovered water upon their arrival in Mara. However, the waters were "bitter" and undrinkable, and for this reason they named the site "Mara."
Although this is the conventional reading of the Torah’s account, the Ba’al Shem Tob (Poland, 1700-1760) offers a different explanation. He commented that when the Torah writes, "but they could not drink water from [the waters of] Mara, because they were bitter," it means not that the waters were "bitter," but rather that the people were "bitter." When Beneh Yisrael arrived in Mara, they were aggravated and despondent. And when a person feels unhappy, everything seems "bitter." Indeed, psychologists say that a depressed person’s food taste sour; his mood affects even the sense of taste. The Ba’al Shem Tob says that the waters of Mara were not inherently bitter, but this is how it tasted to the people because of their emotional state. Depression has a way of clouding a person’s senses and distorting his judgment. Things that are good seem bad; he experiences sweetness as bitterness.
I recall one point during my years in yeshiva that I considered leaving the yeshiva and entering into business. I spoke to my Rabbi about my thoughts, and, to his credit, he did not discount my feelings. Instead, he mentioned to me that I appeared a bit upset and down, that I was going through an unhappy period at the yeshiva. In such a condition, he advised, one should not be making critical decisions. Melancholy prevents a person from thinking clearly, and therefore one should not be making major life choices in such a state.
This is why the Torah affords such importance to joy and happiness. There is no greater Misva than being happy, because this state of mind is critical for observing all other Misvot. It is what enables us to make the right decisions of how to act and what to say.
The story of Mara also instructs us how to find happiness and serenity. The Torah relates that God instructed Moshe to resolve the crisis by casting a tree into the "bitter" waters. After Moshe threw the tree into the water, it miraculously became fresh and drinkable. How does a tree turn "bitter waters" into "fresh waters"?
The Torah is referred to as an "Etz Haim" – a "tree of life." The way we transform "bitterness" to "sweetness" is through Torah study. Torah has a calming effect on a student, as it provides meaning and direction, and reassures him during difficult times. The secret to avoiding "bitterness," depression and anxiety, is the "tree," the Torah, which is the source of ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction. (For this reason, Torah learning is forbidden on Tisha B’Ab, when we are required to feel saddened and empty, and therefore should not be experiencing the elation and satisfaction that Torah study brings.)
As mentioned, after Beneh Yisrael left Mara they arrived in Elim, where they found seventy palm trees and twelve water springs. A nation of three million people can certainly not be properly fed by seventy palm trees and twelve water springs. Nevertheless, Beneh Yisrael rejoiced upon discovering these resources. After learning the message of Mara, that through Torah we gain a healthier and more positive perspective on life, they were able to celebrate the water springs and palm trees of Elim. They engendered an attitude of looking favorably at whatever they are given in life, rather than seeing everything as "bitter."
Attitude is everything. Nothing will bring us satisfaction and happiness if we do not look at what we have in life from a positive angle; it will all taste "bitter." But through the joy of Torah we are able to recognize and appreciate our blessings in life, and thereby achieve the happiness and fulfillment that we seek.