In this week’s parasha, we are told that the people could not drink the waters in a place called Marah because “they” were bitter (“marah” means “bitter,” and the Hebrew word for “water” always takes the plural form). The founder of Hasidut, the Baal Shem Tov, interpreted the “they” in this passage as referring to the Israelites, not to the waters. In other words, it was not due to the bitterness of the water that the people found they could not drink; rather it was due to their own bitter attitude that they found the water unpleasant.
Although it is human nature to blame our negative experiences on our circumstances rather than on ourselves, some of the heroes of our tradition sought to overcome this trait. The Talmud contains legends about Nachum Ish Gam-zu. He was called “Ish Gam-zu” (“the person for whom this too [is for the best]”) because he was reputed to interpret his experiences in a positive light, no matter how negative they seemed to be. On one occasion, he was appointed to deliver a treasure to the Roman government. When he arrived at court to present it, he discovered that a thief had replaced it with sand. Rather than breakdown in despair, Nachum presented the sand as if it were a special treasure. A miracle occurred, and the officials accepted the sand as having magical properties. Nachum Ish Gam-zu’s positive attitude, in the face of adversity, contributed to changing the outcome for the best.
The Jewish insistence on maintaining a positive outlook despite all evidence to the contrary has even found its way into the popular culture. Legend has it that when the comedian Jerry Lewis once faced a setback in his career, he turned to his mother on camera and declared, “Gam zu latova.” (“This, too, is for the best”) Following this example may not be easy, but the benefits of maintaining a positive outlook, no matter how disappointing the circumstances, cannot be overestimated.
Rabbi Mitch Levine