Parashas Vaykhel-Pekudei

This week’s parashah describes the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its furnishings. The Torah relates (Shemos 37:1): “And Betzalel made the Ark of acacia [in Hebrew, shittim] wood.” The Midrash expounds (Shemos Rabbah 50:3):
It is written (Yirmiyah 30:17): “For I will provide for you a cure; from your wounds I will heal you.” Mortal men smite with a knife and heal with a dressing, but the Holy One Blessed Be He heals with the very thing with which He smites. Thus it is written (Shemos 15:23): “And they came to Marah, and they could not the drink water of Marah.” Why? “Because it was bitter” (ibid.). [The Torah relates later:] “He [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem directed him to a tree; he threw [a branch of] it into the water, and the water became sweet.” [The Midrash presents various opinions about what tree branch Moshe threw into the water; the common denominator is that they all are bitter.] Thus it is written (Yirmiyah 30:17): “Through your wounds I shall heal you” [interpreting ממכותיך not in its plain sense of from your wounds, but rather in a homiletical sense, as meaning through your wounds]. … Thus, similarly, the People of Yisrael sinned in Shittim [Bamidbar 25:1], and were healed through shittim, as it is written: “And Betzalel made the Ark of shittim wood.” [The sin at Shittim occurred nearly 40 years after the construction of the Mishkan, but Maharzav explains that Hashem prepared the Torah, which the Ark contained, in advance so that the Jewish People could learn how to repent from the sin.]
In his commentary on this Midrash, the Maggid begins by noting that when Hashem says that “through your wounds I will heal you,” He is not simply saying that He heals us with the same instrument that He used previously to smite us. Rather, He is saying that the blow itself is the means through which He heals us. The Maggid then sets out to explain why it is important for us to know this fact.
He quotes the following Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 43:3):
“And Moshe pleaded” (ויחל משה) (Shemos 32:11, in the episode of the golden calf). Here, ויחל is a term denoting sweetening (חילוי). … When the People of Yisrael came to Marah … Moshe began to wonder: “This water, why was it created? What benefit is it to the world? It would have been better had it not been created.” … The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: “Don’t speak like that. Is this water not the work of My hands? Is there anything in the world that was not created for a purpose? Let Me tell you what you should say instead. Say like this: ‘Make the bitter sweet.’” How do we know that the Holy One Blessed Be He instructed him to speak this way? [The Midrash recounts the episode of the waters of Marah, stressing that the Torah does not say that Hashem showed (ויראהו) Moshe the tree, but rather that He directed him to the tree (ויורהו – a term denoting instruction, related to the word תורה).] When did Moshe make use of this teaching? When the People of Yisrael [committed the sin of the calf] and God sought to annihilate them, Moshe said to Him: “Master of the Universe! Do You seek to destroy the People of Yisrael and wipe them off the earth? Did You not teach me at Marah: ‘Plead, and say: “Make the bitter sweet”’? So now, sweeten (חלי) the People of Yisrael’s bitterness and heal them.”
Moshe asks what the bitter waters of Marah were created. The Maggid remarks that it is indeed a great wonder that Hashem brought the Jewish People to Marah, where they could not drink the water, so that it was necessary to sweeten them. Why did Hashem do this? Couldn’t He have brought them to a place where there was sweet water?
The Maggid explains as follows. The same question that Moshe raised about the waters of Marah could be raised about around half of all creation. The way the world appears to us, there are many more harmful creations than beneficial creations. Yet Shlomo HaMelech teaches us that Hashem “made everything beautiful in its time” (Koheles 3:11) and made everything “for His sake, even the evildoer for the day of retribution” (Mishlei 16:4). Everything in the world serves some beneficial purpose. Creations that we categorize as good are beneficial continually, and creations that we categorize as bad still provide benefit at the appropriate time, for example, when they are used as medicines.
The Torah concludes its account of creation by saying (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Expounding on this statement, the Midrash presents a long list of creations that are generally very bad, but provide a wondrous benefit in certain circumstances. Included in this list is the evil inclination. The Midrash notes that were it not for the evil inclination, a man would not build a house or marry. But when the evil inclination is stirred at an inappropriate time, Hashem has to “sweeten” it for us and keep it from causing us harm. This is the lesson Hashem taught Moshe at Marah: When we encounter something we experience as bad, we should not wish that it had not been created. Instead, we should understand that it is beneficial in its time, and when we find it bitter we should ask Hashem to sweeten it for us. Hashem is always at our side to help us. Thus David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 121:5-7): “Hashem is your guardian; He is your shadow at your right hand … Hashem will guard you from all evil; He will guard your soul.”
Indeed, Hashem promised us that He will heal us from the harm the evil inclination causes us. The Gemara in Berachos 32a and Sukkah 52b mentions three verses without which the feet of the Jewish People would falter. In one of these verses, Michah 4:6, Hashem states that He will gather in those whom He has done evil. In this verse, Hashem admits to having caused us difficulties by creating the evil inclination and promises to relieve these difficulties. Now, this statement might deflect us from working to serve Hashem and perform mitzvos: We might think that since Hashem takes the blame, so to speak, for the havoc the evil inclination wreaks on us, and has taken it upon Himself to repair the damage, there is no point in our exerting ourselves to break the evil inclination. Far be it for a blessing from Hashem to turn into a curse!
It is in order to prevent us from making this error that Hashem led us to the bitter waters of Marah and sweetened them for us. At Marah He demonstrated to us the process of sweetening the bitter: He instructed Moshe to take a bitter branch and sweeten the bitter with bitter. This exemplifies how Hashem sweetens the bitterness of the evil inclination: He brings bitter afflictions upon us until we are sweetened, just as He brought awesome plagues on Pharaoh to sweeten him and turn him from bad to good. The same idea underlies the verse from Yirmiyah that the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 50:3 quotes: “For I shall provide for you a cure; through your wounds I will heal you.” Hashem will provide us a cure, but the cure will come through blows that Hashem will cast upon us. We thus can understand literally the statement in the Midrash that Hashem heals with the very thing with which He smites – the purpose of the blow is to heal. Through the demonstration at Marah, we learned that it is not in our best interest to sit and wait for Hashem to sweeten our evil inclination.
It is in this vein that the Torah concludes its account of the episode at Marah with the following words (Shemos 15:25-26):
There He established for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them. And He said: “If you will hearken diligently to the voice of Hashem your God, and do that which is just in His eyes, and give ear to His commandments and observe all His statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the ailments that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am Hashem your Healer.
Hashem is telling us that we have in our hands a means of sweetening the evil inclination: Torah and mitzvos. As the Gemara in Kiddushin 30b says: “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as a remedy for it.” If we fail to make use of this remedy, then Hashem has to step in and sweeten the evil inclination through afflictions. As the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah 4:2 says: “The book and the sword came down from heaven bound together.” And as Yeshayah teaches (verse 1:19-20): “If you are willing and you listen, you will eat the good of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured with the sword.” At Marah, Hashem set the choice before us: We can sweeten the evil inclination ourselves through the statute and ordinance that Hashem established for us, or we can let Hashem sweeten the evil inclination for us through the method of sweetening the bitter with bitter. If we embrace the first method, we will not need to endure the second. As Hashem says: “I will not bring upon you any of the ailments that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I am Hashem your Healer” – through the Torah, a sweet and pleasant remedy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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