When we were in the hospital with Honi this summer, it was very hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that our son had been created absolutely perfect, his body was created in such a way that he was not going to survive for much longer, AND he had been created at a time in human history when we had the tools and technology to save him.
Sometimes I would look at the machines around his bed and think of them as angels, miracles that kept him alive and safe and protected for as long as they were nearby.
I have always been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to technology. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as dependent on it as anyone else, but I have long paid for its conveniences with a healthy dose of guilt. When I arrived at the hospital this summer, the foundations of my binary universe. Suddenly I had to use purell all the time, drink from sterile styrofoam cups, and give my son’s medicines and feeds through plastic disposable tubes. Suddenly technology, and modernity more generally, wasn’t just about convenience at the expense of mother earth, it was integral to my Son’s survival.
In this week’s parsha, beshallah, B’nai Yisrael departs from slavery and experiences a liberation that turns their world upside down. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains how The individual who just emerged from the Red Sea does not know whether he is in a dream or in the real world; the whole world seems different to him This shock at having the world turned upside down, even for the sake of liberation, is no small matter. Not only do they have to learn to see themselves anew (as free rather than as slaves) but they also have to re-learn the world. What had been a place where they toiled and extracted and built, often for the sake of others (and received their own sustenance consistently if not indirectly) is suddenly a place that they have a direct and inconsistent need from the land for survival.
According to the text, only one verse after Miriam’s song, they are already overcome by the fact that there is no water to drink:
וַיֵּלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם
And they went three days in the wilderness and they could not find water
וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֙יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה׃
They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah.
וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה־נִּשְׁתֶּֽה׃
And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
The people have been given their freedom, but they seem to feel abandoned to a wilderness of survival. They look around them and see none of their basic needs being cared for. They worriedly kvetch “was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness??”
As the people’s panic and thirst mounts, Moses seeks help from God, who teaches him about a tree. This tree turns the waters from bitter to sweet, and the people eagerly drink the healed waters. There is a midrash that envisions Moses asking God, “why did you create brackish water in your world, a liquid that serves no purpose??” God replies, “Instead of asking philosophical questions, do something to make the bitter waters sweet.”
The same sentiment is plainly stated earlier in the moment just before the Israelites cross the sea, when Moses cries out to God on behalf of the panicked people, and God says, “why do you cry out to me?? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” God is saying in the most frank terms possible, I cannot do this for you! I have encoded your survival in the world but you must move forward.
Reading these words reminded me of my experience in the hospital. I had wanted Honi to be saved, but I was terrified by the idea that we, humans, actually had the power to intercede. The thing that kept me from fully embracing technology is seeing the seed of destruction that it contains. I could only engage with its flaws, I could only see it’s potential for bitterness. At the same time, I felt overpowered by it. I felt (and still feel) addicted to my phone, increasingly dependent on conveniences like online shopping, and more willing to “check out” than be present. These were the bitter waters. But if I only see their bitterness, I miss their truth, which is that they are created by God and it is we who wield them – who can leave them to their bitterness or transform them into sweet.
HaEmmek HaDavar points out that from the plain sense of the encounter with the Etz, it must be that the tree that sweetens the waters is directly next to the bitter pool of water. He says that this is the way of nature: כמו כל הטבע אשר במקום חסרון איזה פרט הכרחי לחיי האדם נוצר שמה איזה דבר אחר להשלים המחסור like in all of nature, in a place where something essential for the life of man is lacking, a different thing is created there to fill in the lack.
I believe that the Emmek HaDavar’s interpretation is instructive here. As we imagine God’s miracles, we imagine them as separate from nature. Furthermore, we imagine our own genius as separate from nature (and often from God’s miracles). But this moment in our parsha serves as a reminder that God acts through nature, and thus we must be agents in the earthly sphere, we are the fulcrum upon which technology that could destruct can also be technology that saves.
HaEmmek HaDavar ends his explanation with the simple statement ומשה לא ידע ממנו “and moshe did not know from it.” God had to be Moshe’s teacher about the plant medicine that God had already created and placed in the world. God has already shown us the medicine that we need in our time. On this Tu B’shevat, we should be reminded that we are both capable and responsible for making the bitter waters sweet. But we are also charged with remembering that bitter is not bad – we actually need it in moderation, and sweetness too must be taken in moderation. To imagine an upside down saved world would be easier than imagining our world with all its potential pitfalls, only sweetened. But that is the truth about our reality. God gives us brackish waters and sweet trees and it is up to us to be the agents of positive transformation. May we celebrate God’s gifts and shape ourselves into shomrei adamah, guardians of the earth, for years to come.