Listening to a Teenager so He Will Talk

Written by Rabbi Stephen Baars on . Posted in Torah

After the Jewish people left Egypt, “they traveled for three days in the desert but did not find water. And they came to Marah, but could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter (that is why the place is called Marah [literally “bitter”]). Then the people complained to Moses saying, ‘What will we drink?’” (Exodus 15:22-24)

Doesn’t it seem reasonable that after three days in the desert the Jewish people are entitled to ask, “What will we drink?”

To understand this lesson, it is important to appreciate that complaining is a big deal. Not only that, but it’s probably true to say that no one ever thinks they are complaining.

Here’s the question: Is it worse to not have any water, or to have water that you cannot drink? The Jewish people survive three days without water, without complaining, but practically no time when the water is undrinkable?

The solution to this riddle is not to be found in the words themselves, but when they were said. Before they got to Marah, it would not have been a complaint; and after they got to Marah, it is. After they got to Marah and saw that the water was undrinkable, they accused G-d of abandoning them.

When your children use the words of a request but the tone of “You hate me,” then it’s not a request at all — it’s a complaint. (“Why can’t I have another candy?” “Why can’t I stay out later?” “Why do I have to...”) Those experienced in the fine art of living with teenagers know these questions are not requests. The kids are saying, “You are not on my side.”

“If you really loved me you would let me eat all the ice cream I want, stay up really late, and have a nose ring, maybe two.”

Why do kids think that? Being on your child’s side does not mean giving them whatever they want, but this is a common parenting trap. We want our kids to feel we are on their side and so, mistakenly, we do whatever they want. However, making life easy for them so they will like us, is not being on their side.

Back to Marah. G-d is obviously on the Jewish people’s side, but the question remains, why did He take them to a bitter lake?

The next verse explains it all: “... G-d showed him a tree, and after dropping it in the water it made the water sweet...” (Exodus 15:25).

Why make it so complicated? Wouldn’t we save a lot of heartache if the water was sweet in the first place?

This is a fundamental principle of life: G-d doesn’t try to make our lives more difficult (we have politicians for that). If the water is bitter, it’s because if it were sweet it would have been worse.

If the water was sweet in the first place, then there would be a very large group of locals not too happy at seeing a few million thirsty Jews. Not only was Marah vacant because it was bitter, and therefore no one was defending it, but G-d also arranged it so everyone knew not to go there. That’s why the place was called “Bitter.”

Doesn’t it all make sense now? After three days in the desert, they arrive at a vacant lake that has a secret code to turn the water drinkable.

In sum, after 10 plagues, the Jews were used to G-d turning anything into anything. Without even asking. “G-d takes care of us,” they sang as they left Egypt. Somehow they didn’t get the memo: It’s now time to grow up.

Similarly, this is what our teenagers are going through. Even though you took care of them for years, they now complain you aren’t on their side. It’s not in the words themselves, anymore than the Jews said it in the words “What will we drink?” It’s between the lines.

That doesn’t mean you give them sweet water, breakfast in bed, free board and lodging forever. It means you have to hear what they are really saying and show them that neither you, nor life, is out to get them.

That is really being on their side.

By Rabbi Stephen Baars

 Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. An educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years, Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at and