Following the incredible event of Kriat Yam Suf, and having achieved a level of prophecy that according to Chazal was greater than the greatest of prophets, Am Yisrael continue on their journey through the midbar, and immediately things begin to unravel. After three days of traveling, they arrive at Marah, where they complain about the bitterness of the water. God commands Moshe to throw a branch into the water, causing the water to sweeten and enabling the nation to drink. The nation then continues to travel, and again they complain, this time about a lack of meat and bread, even declaring, “If only You would have allowed us to die in Egypt, where we had plenty of meat and bread to eat, rather than taking us out to this desert to die of starvation!” And this pattern of complaints continues through much of Parshat Beshalach.
The attitude of Am Yisrael, and their complaints, seems nothing short of astounding. Considering the miracles that they had just witnessed and experienced, why were they so quick to question and challenge Moshe and Hashem? Had God not demonstrated to them His omnipotence and ability to take care of them? Additionally, while we may suggest that their request for drinkable water and bread/meat may have been somewhat justified, how did a valid request cascade into exaggerated accusations toward Moshe and Hashem of bringing the nation to die in the midbar—and much more!?
Rav Dov Ber of Mezritch, affectionately known as the Maggid of Mezritch, gives a very sharp and powerful explanation to this entire episode. As the Torah describes the arrival of Bnei Yisrael to Marah, the text describes how the nation was unable to drink the water “because they were bitter.” While the standard explanation of the text is that the Torah is referring to the water as bitter, making it undrinkable for the nation, Rav Dov Ber suggests alternatively that “because they were bitter” in fact refers to Bnei Yisrael. As Am Yisrael arrived at Marah shortly after leaving the shores of the Yam Suf, a wave of bitterness, or cynicism and frustration, overtook the people. Once that occurred, it was “all downhill from there.” Once the nation entered a place of pessimism and bitterness, anything they experienced was viewed through the lens of the glass half empty. Any challenge they confronted only exacerbated their frustrations, causing them to react disproportionately to the actual challenges they faced.
It’s striking to note that the Torah makes no mention of exactly what caused this wave of bitterness and cynicism to come upon the nation. Perhaps it comes to teach that the cause of their frustration is not important; what’s more important was the impact this negative mentality had on Am Yisrael, leading them to continuously challenge and criticize both Moshe and God.
I believe that this message is important for us as parents, on two levels. Firstly, children of all ages, and at all stages in life, are at times overcome with a wave of negativity or pessimism. Sometimes the cause of that frustration can be identifiable, whereas other times the person himself may not even know where it came from, or how it started. Nevertheless, as parents we must be attuned to times when our children get into a place of negativity and do our best to act accordingly. There may not be one specific way to react; it may depend on the age and nature of the child. For some children, the best reaction may be to give them space to calm down. For others, a meaningful conversation may be in order. Either way, the more aware we are of the situation, the better equipped we will be to properly handle it.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we must be self-aware of our own susceptibility to this mentality as well. Throughout our busy days as parents, spouses and professionals there are bound to be moments of frustration that occur. Sometimes, those moments build up without us even being aware, causing us to become irritated and agitated. Often, we don’t even remember how it all began, but it builds up to a point where we get frustrated at our loved ones, overreacting and saying things that we later regret. Unfortunately, since our end of the day is often spent at home with our spouse and children, they are the ones who tend to bear the brunt of any accumulation of cynicism or bitterness that we experienced throughout the day. It can sometimes get to a point where one innocent or harmless comment by a child or spouse may cause disproportionate blowup—a reaction that we often regret immediately after it occurs.
It is important for us to be aware of ourselves and our emotional state. While it is certainly normal and human to get frustrated and sometimes even bitter, as parents we must put effort into making sure that that frustration and bitterness does not carry over into our relationships with our kids. We never know the impact that one misplaced comment or overreaction could have—and we must strive to make sure that any negativity that is building up within us is not given over to our kids.
Soon after the miracle of Kriat Yam Suf, Am Yisrael become enveloped in a wave of bitterness and negativity. This negative mindset overcomes them, causing a series of complaints and even false accusations against Hashem and Moshe. As parents, we must pay careful attention to the danger of negativity and cynicism—both to when such negativity has affected our children, as well as when it has affected us, and be thoughtful in how to react accordingly.
Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement adviser/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected]