Maimonides was the court physician for the Sultan Saladin in medieval Egypt. Reportedly the Sultan was hardly ever ill. Once he called Maimonides, and demanded of him proof that he was a good doctor. “I am never ill,” said Saladin, “so how am I to know whether you in fact deserve the reputation that you have for being a great physician?”
Maimonides answered: “The greatest of all physicians is the Lord, of Whom it is said ‘I am the Lord thy physician’. As proof of this, it is written ‘I will not place upon you the illnesses which I have placed upon ancient Egypt’. Who is truly the good doctor? Not the person who heals the sick from their diseases, but rather the one who helps the person from becoming sick and sees to it that he maintains his health.”
As Maimonides writes in one of his medical works, Essay on Human Conduct, “Most of the illnesses which befall man are his own fault, resulting from his ignorance of how to preserve his health – like a blind man who stumbles and hurts himself and even injures others in the process due to not having a sense of vision.”
Prevention is better than cure – so how can we ensure prevention?
In this weeks Parasha the Bnei Yisrael take their first steps on a long journey out of Egypt. They are finally free to go and make their way to the Yam Suf. There, Hashem performs even greater miracles than the ten plagues, and the Egyptian army is miraculously wiped out entirely.
Consequently the Bnei Yisrael let out a song of praise sung till today.
Imagine the euphoria! The entire people had witnessed miracle after miracle culminating with the splitting of the sea. Now they were to head for their next event – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
If we pause here, what would we expect next? Perhaps another miracle to bring the Bnei Yisrael closer to Mount Sinai, some more wonders?
The Torah relates otherwise.
“And Moshe made Israel journey from the Sea of Reeds and they went out into the wilderness of Shur. And they went for three days in the wilderness and did not find water. And they came to Marah [bitter] and were not able to drink water from Marah, because they were bitter; therefore its name was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moshe, saying “What shall we drink?””(Shemot 15:22-24).
What a rude awakening! From the highs of the splitting of the sea to no drinking water? Surely that’s the basics, why was Hashem not supplying them with drinking water?
Moshe cries out to Hashem and
“Hashem instructed him about a tree which he cast into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He established for it [the nation] law and justice, and there He tested it. And He said: If you will surely hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and you will keep all His laws, then all the maladies which I have put upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I am Hashem your Healer” (25-26).
The waters of freedom are bitter! Freedom, it seems, is not the magical, trouble-free existence they may have once imagined. It is demanding, and fraught with disappointments.
As a servant, they were provided their daily rations, they were to do the set job and finish the day. They then entered a new phase, one of freedom and euphoria in the midst of great miracles. But now they were entering the real world one in which freedom is demanding as well as pleasing. They will have to fend for themselves in the real world.
Now is the time to teach them two essential lessons that will aid them manoeuvre through their new existence.
The first is that Hashem has the power to transform something bitter (water) using something bitter (tree), into something sweet.
Up to now the Bnei Yisrael had witnessed how Hashem can destroy the enemy, but what about using something bad to transform an object to good?
The Ibn Ezra notes the symmetry of comparing this miracle with the first of the Ten Plagues. Then, Hashem changed sweet water into blood whereas now Hashem shows that He can also turn bitter water sweet. Of course, this demonstrates Hashem’s mastery over the forces of nature. The Midrash (Mechilta Beshalach) says that the tree itself was bitter, and only Hashem can use a bitter agent to turn the bitter sweet.
The people personally witnessed Hashem’s Providence:
Hashem is the same One Who not only punishes, but rewards;
He brings illness, but He is also the Healer; and He is the same One Who creates the bitter and then can make it sweet.
The second lesson being taught at Marah was the power of Torah.
There the Bnei Yisrael are taught some laws of Torah. (Sham Sam Loh Chok Umishpat…)
What is the connection between the sweetened water and Torah?
Our Sages explain that it is this Torah that gives power to make the bitter water sweet.
They must learn that it is only through the Torah – its commandments and laws – that their freedom will have meaning.
Learning Torah isn’t easy. As a beginner we look at the book with uncertainty and it requires much effort at first to help us get on the right path.
The Torah at first is viewed with all its laws as bitter. It’s tough keeping all the Mitzvot, it’s tough learning. Yet once we start and attach ourselves to them, they become part of us, they help guide us in life and act as sweetener.
The soul contains elements of bitterness in the form of destructive passions, but the Torah, whose strictures often begin as bitter themselves, sweetens the waters of life. It provides a framework in which freedom can flourish responsibly, creatively and purposefully. When the Jewish people observe the Torah, Hashem enters into a partnership with them preventing troubles and showering them with healing blessings.