What was the stick? Rebbi Yehoshua said it was made of myrtle wood, while Rebbi Nosson said it was a bitter creeper (found on the banks of rivers with rose-like blossoms, injurious to animals). Another opinion, that of Rebbi Eliezer Hamodai, was that it was an olive branch, and a fourth opinion, that of Rebbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, was that it was a kind of wheat grown in the mountains, which was hard. Others still disagree, saying that it was a root of a fig or pomegranate. In any event, it was bitter.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Come and see how incredible are the ways of G-D more than the ways of human beings. Humans use sweets to fix up what is bitter, but G-D uses bitter to fix up what is bitter. How does He do this? He puts something which is harmful into another thing which is harmful to create a miracle within a miracle.”
The Etz Yosef asked a question on the last part of this medrish: “There is a major question because Moshe did not know that the ways of Hashem was in this manner until now, as mentioned here that G-D told Moshe ‘you must learn this.’ If so how can [Moshe] say that that which he sinned with he will use to praise [Hashem] wasn’t The Song sang before this episode [as they crossed the split sea?] We can answer that Moshe, even though he did not know this way of G-D regarding healing [or fixing], but logically he concluded that it is good to correct his misdeed using the same thing he sinned with.”
Indeed, Moshe had himself figured out the concept of ‘using the problem as the solution,’ as was seen at the end of the medrish when he used the word “then” as part of a sentence arguing with Hashem, and later corrected himself by using the same word “then” to start one of the greatest praises of Hashem in Human history.
So how could Moshe have missed the point by Marah and thought he should add honey or date cake to the bitter waters to miraculously sweeten them? Why did G-D have to explicitly teach him a lesson of how He acts by using a bitter stick to sweeten the bitter waters?
We must therefore conclude, as the Etz Yosef alludes, that when it comes to making an actual change to a physical substance, even Moshe, the greatest believer of Hashem, could have some sort of blockage in his mind, to the degree that he couldn’t figure out how to appropriately sweeten the waters.
When focusing on the way the world works it is very easy to get caught up in the physical sciences, thinking that whatever scientific breakthroughs are made must be the indelible truth and that they preclude anything else from being correct. This is because it makes sense in our minds; it is logical, proven – even when it clashes with the ideals and truth of the Torah. What we see from here is that it is not surprising that such a mistake might happen, as even Moshe Rabbeinu was capable of missing the boat when it comes to such matters. And, indeed, G-D had to explicitly demonstrate for him the proper actions to take. All the more so for us; we have to strive to understand what the Torah, G-D’s blueprints of creation and instruction booklet for all mankind, is teaching us. Only then we can see how science truly fits into the way the world exists.
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder