Bishalach: Science and Faith

In this week’s Torah portion, Bishalach, we find the Jews traveling in the wilderness on the way to get the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, after the splitting of the Red Sea they had run out of water, and now found themselves by a spring of bitter water.
With this backdrop the Medrish Tanchuma (paragraph 24) cites: “You find human beings when they get cut with a knife they put on a bandage to heal themselves. But G-D isn’t like that, rather the instrument He strikes with he also uses to heal. And so you can find this when they (the Jews in the Wilderness) came to Marah and Moshe thought that G-D would tell him to throw honey or a date cake [into the bitter waters] and they would turn sweet, see [though] what the Torah writes ‘And [Moshe] cried out to Hashem and Hashem showed him a stick’ (Shemos 15:25). G-D said to him, ‘Moshe, my ways aren’t like human beings. Now you must learn this.’ As it says ויורהו ה' עץ. It does not say ויראהו, ‘and He revealed to him,’ rather it says ויורהו, ‘and He instructed him,’ [G-D] taught [Moshe] His ways.

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 Medrish Tanchuma goes on to list two examples from Isaiah chapter 38 and Kings 2 chapter 2 of instances where something harmful was used to fix something that was is harmful. The Medrish Tanchuma then concludes: “And so to the righteous people, with what they sin or argue they also use to fix the [problem.] Proof is, at the time when Moshe argued and sinned, it was using the word אז (then) as it says, ‘And from then I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name etc.’ (Shemos 5:23). Moshe said, ‘with אז (then) I sinned and with אז (then) I will fix it and he then sang [the Song of the Sea]. Therefore the Torah says אז ישיר משהThen Moshe sang.’”

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.”

This prompts a question. Moshe, who saw the burning bush, a bush that was aflame but did not burn, that spoke to him in the Name of G-D; Moshe, who performed numerous miracles as a messenger of Hashem in Egypt – how could he not have been capable of figuring out how Hashem would turn bitter waters into sweet waters? Why did Hashem have to teach him a lesson as if it was something which Moshe could not comprehend on his own? It was far from the first time he had experienced a miracle within a miracle; the ten plagues in Egypt were miracles within miracle, such as the wild animals only invading Egyptian land, while not entering one spot belonging to a Jew. Another example was that while a thick darkness covered Egypt for three straight days, the Jews walked around in light.
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.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

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