Everyone knows that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but have you ever really stopped to think about what this means? Mary Poppins repeats this key message in several different ways throughout the film, so it must be important.
The great Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer, composer of “Jerusalem of Gold”, penned the following lyrics to another song entitled “Al Kol Eleh (For All of These Things)”. The lyrics suggest: “…Every bee that brings the honey / Needs a sting to be complete / And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.” Written after the glow of 1967 and the melancholy of the Yom Kippur War, Shemer understood that life is about finding an appreciation for both the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet.
Last week’s Torah portion tells this same tale: The people of Israel have just been freed from Egypt. After traveling three days without water, they come to a place called Marah where there is water but it is bitter. The people of Israel do what they always do… they complain. Moses cries out to God and God responds by showing Moses a stick. Moses takes the stick and throws it into the water and the water becomes sweet. (Exodus 15:22-25)
This is the Jewish way. Mar v’hamatok, the bitter and the sweet, are always a pair. Happiness and tears, maror and charoset, always go together. Each has its place in our world. We can ponder why tragedy strikes, why bitterness comes our way, but our job is to act. Our job is to sweeten the bitter, to make the bitter more palatable.
In our tradition, mitzvot/commandments are the remedy for bitterness in life. When sickness strikes, we visit the sick. When death comes, we comfort the mourner. When financial failure looms, we help our neighbor with an outstretched hand. When our fellow Jews are threatened by violence and hatred, we stand together with them boldly as one. When the songs of sadness embitter our hearts, we sing songs of hope and faith to get us through. For all these things… bless the sting and bless the honey, bless the bitter and bless the sweet.