Bitter and Sweet

“One should always go on the “King’s Highway”, and keep one’s distance from extremism: neither too bitter nor too sweet. [Sayings of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, p. 143]

The King’s Highway or Derech HaMelech is referred to in the Book of Numbers, (Numbers 20:17, 21:22), where it is related that the Israelites, in their Exodus journey needed to use the roads for travel. They had left from Kadesh, and requested the right of way from the king of Edom to cross his lands, but they were refused passage. He vowed he would attack them if they used the road. The Israelites even offered to pay for any water their cattle drank. Still, the king of Edom refused them passage, and advanced against them with a large and heavily armed force. After making a detour and coming to the Transjordan area between the Arnon river and the Jabbok river, they directed the same request to Sihon the Amorite King; for the second time on the same road they were denied passage, and King Sihon engaged them in battle at Jahaz. And they won that battle by the edge of the sword, a close call. As a result, the Israelites gained control in that land and to the north of it. The tribes of Manasseh (eastern half), Gad, and Reuben subsequently settled those territories.

So how do we think about the King’s Highway, in our Mussar terms?  It seems that is the road that we need to take, to get where we are supposed to be. And there will be obstacles, to be sure.  These battles were emblematic of the struggle of faith in divine promise. The Israelites already had done poorly with that – the spies who only saw challenge, the Israelite people who begged to return to Egypt, even as God promised redemption and deliverance. They just couldn’t wait (no savlanut!) But now, the Israelites prevail in these battles, they overcome high odds, and end up where they want to be, where they need to be.  The balance point is not always the sweetest or the easiest; there will be some bitter, we can’t cling to only the sweet, for that is not equanimity.  We need both sides to be balanced.

There is scientific evidence that the taste sensations of both bitter and sweet use quite similar signaling pathways in the cell to perceive those tastes. The elimination of any either bitter or sweet receptors on the tongue results in a decrease or complete loss of sensitivity for both sweet and bitter tastes.  They are intertwined.  This Shabbat, rather than pushing away the bitter, negative imbalances, how can we embrace them, weave them with the sweet to find true equanimity?