The great tzaddik, Rabbi Chaim haGadol (died 1845) of Mogador (Essaouira), Morocco, was a link in the illustrious, holy chain of chachamim in the Pinto family. He was a talmid chacham who rose for tikkun chatzot in the middle of each night, and then learned Torah until dawn. He was renowned for his love and sacrifice for others, he maintained an ongoing chavrusa shaft with Eliyahu haNavi, and was the head of a family that spawned generations of spiritual leaders. His grandson, the holy Rebbi Chaim haKatan of Casablanca (died 1937), was named, “haKatan—the Small,” in order to distinguish him from his grandfather, “haGadol—the Great.” Yet, he inherited the family legacy of kedushah, chesed, love of Am Yisrael—and the ability to give miraculous blessings.
A local fisherman in Mogador struggling with his livelihood, once came to Rebbi Chaim haKatan to pour out his heart, share his burden and receive the tzaddik’s blessing. Rebbi Chaim listened quietly to the man’s pain. He then removed his shoes and handed them to the fisherman, saying, “When you go to the dock, place these shoes in the water. May Hashem bless you with parnassah b’shefa!”
The fisherman left with Rebbe Chaim’s shoes in his hands, went to the shore and submerged them in the water. Within seconds, they were surrounded by swarms of fish—well beyond any amount that he could net and carry home.
That evening, the fisherman went to the tzaddik with a basket full of fish as a gift. Filled with awe, he recounted the events of the day. Rebbi Chaim refused to accept any gifts: “Baruch Hashem! My friend, these fish are yours. I had nothing to do with this shefa—they are for you.”
Our sedra recounts how—after arriving thirsty at the bitter waters of Marah—Hashem instructs Moshe to take a piece of wood and throw it in the water. Miraculously, it turns the bitterness into sweetness.וַיִּצְעַק אל ה׳ וַיּוֹרֵהוּ ה׳ עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל־הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ׃
“So, he cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There, Hashem made for them a fixed rule; there they were put to the test.” (15:25)
Midrash Tanchuma (24) offers several opinions regarding the nature of the wood utilized by Moshe. The suggestions include the wood of the aravah or willow tree, ivy, olive or cedar wood, or the root of a fig or pomegranate tree. The consensus among Sages is that the wood was, itself, bitter. Moshe thought or assumed that Hashem would tell him to sweeten the waters with something sweet, like honey or pressed figs. Instead, the Ribbono Shel Olam leveled with Moshe: מֹשֶׁה, אֵין דְּרָכַי כְּמִדַּת בָּשָׂר וָדָם. עַכְשָׁו אַתָּה צָרִיךְ לִלְמֹד—“Moshe, My ways are not like man’s ways, and now, you must learn this fact. The Torah, therefore, says, וַיּוֹרֵהוּ ה׳ עֵץ—“Hashem showed him a tree.” The midrash points out that, in actuality, וַיַּרְאֵהוּ לֹא נֶאֱמַר כָּאן אֶלָּא וַיּוֹרֵהוּ—“The pasuk does not just mean vayirehu, ‘and Hashem showed him,’ but also vayorehu, וַהוֹרָהוּ בִּדְרָכָיו, ‘and Hashem taught him (His Divine ways) … ’”
Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel, too, tells us that the episode at Marah accentuates the supernatural ways of Hashem. Man improves the taste of something bitter with something sweet, but Hakadosh Baruch Hu performs a miracle and improves the taste of something bitter by adding something bitter.
A grandson of the saintly Baba Sali, zt”l, Rav Avraham Yehudayoff, is the rosh kollel of HaRema, named for “Rebbi Masoud Abuchatzeira,” the Baba Sali’s father. He says, in today’s generation, young people consider the miracles of tzaddikim to be unreal; however, in earlier generations, people knew how to accept the words of a tzaddik with pure emunah. And, because of that emunah, they witnessed miracles.
Perhaps, this is the yesod, the “foundation” for understanding the extraordinary episode of the fisherman, above. Sod Hashem li-reyav—“The Divine secret is (in relation) to the one who is in awe of Hashem.” Beyond whatever hidden mystical intentions Rebbe Chaim haKatan may have had in asking that his shoes be placed in the water, it was just a פעולה דמיונית, a “symbolic” or “representative action” used to channel the Divine blessings, and the miracle was really revealed in the merit of the fisherman’s pure, simple faith: “I had nothing to do with this shefa—the fish are for you.”
~ויאמינו בה׳ ובמשה עבדו
“They had faith in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant.” (14:31)
Whether we find ourselves, metaphorically, at the Yam Suf, Marah or Mogador—or anywhere else on our derech—the blessings of the true tzaddikim await us. Shabbos Shirah invites us to renew our emunah—in the fact that Hashem is just waiting to reveal that all we experience as bitter may be sweetened. May our baskets overflow with the “fish” of miraculous blessings; may we “learn” to recognize Hashem’s mysterious ways, and sing to Him songs of awesome praise.
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.