In Shakespeare’s Othello, the poison of suspicion eats steadily away at Othello’s soul, making him mad. The problem is not infidelity, per sé, but the not knowing. It makes a person crazy when they are standing on shifting ground, when it is impossible to simply agree on the facts and move on.
This kind of limbo state is poisonous, as it consumes all of our thoughts over time, locking us into a state of indecision. It is that little voice of doubt, gnawing away at us.
Jews are quite familiar with it. Our sages refer to living in the Diaspora, in these times without the Temple, as Galus Hamarah Hazos, “This bitter exile.” The bitterness is not because we are not in our land; it is the bitterness of those nagging doubts: in the post-Temple era, G-d’s involvement in our lives has always been plausibly deniable, at least one some level. And while that doubt may not afflict all of us, Jewish history and the Torah makes it clear that the doubt has certainly afflicted a great many Jews through the ages.
Rivkah and Esau are described as being marah when Esau marries a local girl instead of one from the family. What does the intermarriage mean? Will it block Esau’s ability to have a complete relationship with G-d? The uncertainty eats at them, and it leads to the deception of Yitzchak by Rivka and Yaakov.
Bitterness builds on itself. Esau in turns expresses his bitterness when Yaakov’s deception is discovered. “ [Esau] cried with an exceeding great and bitter cry, and said unto his father: Bless me, even me also, O my father.’” (Gen. 27:34) Esau is bitter because the one relationship that he was certain of, the one with his father, is now in doubt. How much damage had Yaakov done? As it happens, more than enough, as Esau is not subsequently given the Avrahamic blessing.
It was this same doubt that caused Mordechai in Megillas Esther to cry out for the Jewish people. Haman had just sealed the deal to kill all the Jews, and Mordechai “went out in the midst of the city and cried loudly and bitterly.” (Esther 4:1)
Esther is the first story in Jewish history in which G-d is found in this world as He is today – cloaked, and hiding His face. And it is the very same problem that we face today: how absolutely certain are we that G-d is there, that G-d has been faithful to us even though we have often faltered in our reciprocal service? Do we even deserve His love?
The Torah tells us about a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. She is called a sotah, and there is a ritual that involves drinking bitter waters, and the threat of a gruesome death if she has, in fact, been untrue. As with the other incidences of bitterness, the issue is not unfaithfulness itself, but the dynamic between a husband and wife in the event that he suspects her of being untrue, but simply does not know for sure. The entire purpose of the ceremony is to reveal the truth, to end any lingering doubts either way.
Bitter waters also afflict the Jewish people as a nation when they leave Egypt. They came to a place where the water was bitter, and, the Torah tells us, G-d “tested” the nation. (Ex. 15:25) What was the test? I think it is a test of the fidelity of the Jewish people, ourselves. We had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. Had we, in fact, remained true? Had we “cheated” on G-d? The answer is found after Moshe throws a tree into the waters, which became sweet.
The symbolism of the tree is, of course, connected to the first tree: the tree of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, the clarity is found through knowledge, through understanding the difference between good and bad, the difference between fidelity and adultery. The bitterness is expunged because G-d is satisfied that we have not cheated on Him.
But the amazing thing is that this is actually a reciprocal test. Just as Mordechai doubted how G-d could let the Jewish people be condemned to death by Haman, and Jews throughout the ages have asked why, after all these years, are we still a diaspora people, so, too the Jews had been asking the very same question! And they started in Egypt, when Miriam was born. Her name contains the same root – and our sages tell us that she was named “bitter” because she was named when the Jewish people were enslaved. “How,” the people must have asked, “Can this really be what is supposed to happen to us?! Where, indeed is G-d?”
It is the same word that crops up in Megillas Ruth, when Naomi returns from her sojourns overseas, a chapter in her life in which she lost her husband and her sons, retaining only Ruth. She tells the townspeople “call me Marah.” Bitter. Naomi wants to know where G-d was, in her life. And she is not punished for doing so – it is clearly a perfectly legitimate question.
Every Passover Seder Jews gather and eat Matzo and Bitter Herbs – maror. We eat the maror to remind us of being enslaved, which was bad enough. But the underlying problem with the enslavement was not the physical abuse, since clearly the Jewish people weathered it and our numbers multiplied despite the oppression. The enormous underlying challenge was to be in that state, and yet somehow keep faith. Like Jews in the Holocaust or during a pogrom, the question is asked: WHERE IS G-D?! That is the meaning of the bitterness.
The proof of it is found in the actual requirement in Jewish Law for what constitutes bitter herbs. The Gemara does not require that the bitter herbs actually taste bitter (many people use Romaine Lettuce instead of horseradish). The core requirement is merely that the herbs (or leaves or roots) must be raw and natural, entirely unprocessed and unimproved. In other words, they are foodstuffs the way animals would eat them. It describes a world of nature, a world of animalistic behavior and the kind of “might makes right” pecking order that is the rule in the animal kingdom. In other words: a purely natural world is a world that has no G-d. A world that is unimproved is a world that is the antithesis of everything that Judaism stands for.
Those bitter herbs we eat, the maror, are to bring us back to the time when we wondered if G-d had chosen another people. To remind us that, as a nation, we dealt with the uncertainty and the lingering doubts… has G-d been faithful? And if He is faithful, then why are we suffering as slaves in a foreign land?
The Torah tells us that G-d made it all right, clearing up this basic question: When we leave Egypt, and see what G-d did to the Egyptians, “Israel saw the great hand that G-d did in Egypt [in other words, His kindnesses to us there]; and the people feared G-d, and they had faith in G-d.” (Ex. 15:31) We discovered that G-d had been there all along! Like the child who hates receiving shots at the doctor’s office – but understands after he grows up why it had to happen – the Jewish people came to understand why G-d hid His face for so long in Egypt. Faith is restored.
The word for “faith” here is the same word as “Amen,” and it has a very specific meaning: wholehearted agreement. What does it mean to be wholehearted? The Torah uses the very same word to describe a suckling child. (Num 11:12) Nursing is an act that is so very beautiful because there is complete bond and love between a mother and the nurseling. It is the moment in someone’s life where there is no doubt at all, no lingering questions. The resumption of that connection is the cure for the bitterness of Egypt.
It is that connection that makes it possible for the most important event in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the bridal canopy between the Jewish people and G-d. When two people get married, there cannot even be the hint of a shadow of any suspicion about infidelity. So, in turn, at Marah the Jewish people proved that they had stayed true. And the Torah tells us that G-d similarly restored our faith in Him in the crossing of the sea.
But just because we have moved forward does not mean that we fail to reconnect to the past, to relive being slaves in Egypt as we do every Pesach. We remember being raw and unimproved, like the bitter herb – coupled with the haunting questions about G-d’s presence in our world. And we remember how it all worked out, and faith was mutually restored. Just as it happened in Egypt, in Mordechai’s Persia, Naomi’s Israel, Daniel’s world after the destruction of the First Temple, and countless times ever since.
2 replies on “Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”
[…] is translated as “rebels,” is itself symbolically very significant in the Torah. The word is mara, which means bitterness, the kind of bitterness that comes from suspicion of disloyalty in a relationship. Esau’s choice […]
[…] be broken. (This is the same bitterness at Marah and the suspected wife, the sotah, as discussed here. It also connects to Esau’s bitter crying; he also fears the loss of relationship.) When we eat […]