(22) Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water.
(23) They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah.
(24) And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
(25) So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test.
(26) He said, “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.”
(22) Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds: The Torah here uses a construction so unusual, that it is hardly even possible to capture the meaning in English at all, except with an obvious and awkward circumlocution: “Moses caused Israel to set out.” We should have expected the far more typical, and simple: “Israel set out from the Sea of Reeds.”
The Midrash therefore explains that in this case Moses had to lead Israel away with actual force, because the Jews, still feeling so uplifted and upbeat by the events they had just experienced, were hoping to delay their departure from there in order to collect the Egyptian treasures that the sea had cast ashore.
If this excitement could not be quenched, or at least contained within proper limits, nothing else of value could be built on it. Moreover, it was imperative that the Jews would not continue looking behind them with regret at how much more wealth had remained in Egypt, but would instead look ahead to blazing their own path.
They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water: Having torn themselves away from Egypt, the source of their former physical and spiritual sustenance, the Jews now find themselves entirely without water. They have no idea how they will survive.
(23) They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah: Marah is the feminine form of mar, “bitter.” Living a self-sufficient, independent life has thus far proved quite painful. The innermost sentiments of the people, who are now bemoaning the loss of what they previously had in Egypt, are reflected in the bitterness of the water.
(24) And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”: The emotional high brought on by the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds is already starting to wear off, and the complaints begin straightaway as soon as the first difficulties are encountered. In all fairness, those difficulties are real, not imagined, and that is why the people are not punished for grumbling. But they have still not learned how to approach their problems constructively.
(25) So he cried out to the Lord: Even Moses was completely at a loss for what he should do.
And the Lord showed him a piece of wood: “Wood” in Hebrew is etz, which also means “tree.” Desalination of water with the aid of a tree symbolizes a connection with both the Garden of Eden – with its Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life – and the Torah, which is itself compared to the Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18).
He threw it into the water and the water became sweet: Thus, the people see clearly that this is no ordinary water. The point of this incident is its pedagogical effect: the Jews need to understand that the water (both physical and spiritual) that they will be drinking henceforth is very different from Egyptian water.
There He made for them a fixed rule: The literal translation is “There He made for them a statute and an ordinance.” In Marah the people are first introduced to the laws of the Torah. Since we are not told just which laws were given there, this verse should be interpreted as indicating a general change of approach.
If until now, at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the Jews were granted mercy (Chesed), severity is now the order of the day. The Jews are given a crisis to deal with – they have no water. This harshness is necessary as the first stage of the nation’s re-education and moral restructuring. It focuses them on law and justice (Gevurah), i.e., on life’s rigidity and limitations, on the need to operate within a given framework of circumstances. Without this severity, the original Chesed cannot endure, and will simply dissipate.
And there He put them to the test: In Hebrew, nisahu, from the root N‑S‑H, whence also nisayon, which means “test” or “ordeal,” but also “training” or “experience” (similarly using nisayon in the sense of “The Trials of the Patriarchs,” see Bible Dynamics on Genesis, 11.3 and 23.2. See also below 15.3, commentary on verse 16:4). Here, too, it would be correct to say that the people are not being tested in the conventional sense of verification, but are receiving training and gaining experience. As they encounter new problems and overcome crises, the Jewish people gradually gain experience in life, and rise to the level of maturity that the Torah, and life in the Land of Israel, will demand of them.
(26) He said, “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer”: God’s approach here is one of intimidation: “Surely you saw that the water was initially too bitter for drinking, and only thanks to the tree that I showed Moses did that water become potable. Know therefore that without Me you simply will not survive. Only by obeying Me every step of the way can you depend on My help, and on remaining healthy.”
This approach is intended to awaken in the people a “fear of God,” which is still very far from loving God. But at this initial stage, when the Jews have only very recently left Egypt, it is still impossible to communicate with them in any other terms. In general, the lower the level of a student’s development, the harder it is to deal with him. Only gradually, toward the end of their forty years of wanderings through the wilderness, will the people’s spiritual growth have advanced to the point that God can speak to them in the language of love, as reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy.