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19.01.2016 14:03    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  exodus  beshalach  

A Fixed Rule In The Wake Of Sweetened Water



"So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.  There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test" (Ex. 15:25).  This verse has two parts:  the first, crying out to the Lord, finding a piece of wood by the Lord's direction, and throwing the wood into the water; the second, setting a fixed rule and putting the Israelites to the test.  We need not only to understand the meaning of the rule and the test, but also the connection between the two parts of the verse.

Let us begin with interpretations of the verse.  Rashi says:  "At Marah He gave them a few passages of the Torah that they might engage in the study thereof—the Sabbat, the red heifer, and the administration of justice."[1] He continues, "And there He put them to the test, ["them" being in the singular]—meaning the people, and He saw their stubbornness:  that they did not consult with Moses in a respectful fashion, saying such as, 'Entreat mercy for us that we may have water to drink,' rather they grumbled."

This interpretation not only fails to explain the connection between the two parts of the verse, but it also does not clarify the connection between the rule and the test in the second part of the verse.[2] Indeed, if we were to skip the part about setting a fixed rule, we would have a connection between the story of wood sweetening the water and the test.[3] So what end is served by the fixed rule, in the middle of the verse?

Sforno interprets that the test was "whether they would accept the fixed rule made for them and not return to their errant ways."[4] But this still provides no connection with the story of the water.

Ibn Ezra ways in his short commentary:  "Perhaps this is the fixed rule regarding their complaining, and there He put them to the test.  The logic of this being that he showed them the source of water of the Lord's deliverance and whomsoever would complain about it/him."  This is a most obscure commentary.  Apparently Ibn Ezra meant to say that those who complained were punished, whereas those who looked to G-d's deliverance benefited.  But it is unclear what the fixed rule was. Read simply, it appears that the rule was given after the story of the water, not before it.  In his long commentary, Ibn Ezra adds the further explanation that the fixed rule was "to teach them by chastisement," and the test, "to deal kindly with the sufferers who did not grumble at Moses."  Again we note: Scripture does not say here that the Israelites were punished and chastised,[5] rather simply that the Holy One, blessed be He, put them to the test.  Either way, the question remains as to why they should be punished before He set them a fixed rule, for punishment can only be meted out after first giving warning.

The sequence of events could perhaps be set forth as follows:  the Israelites grumbled about lack of water, a pardonable complaint for a people trekking through the wilderness, as shortage of water may well have been their most acute problem, especially when dealing with a vast group including women and children.  At this point the Holy One, blessed be He, wrought a miracle for them, but the miracle would not persist, at least not in turning bitter water sweet.  In the future the Holy One, blessed be He, would indeed see to their finding springs, or according to the Sages would provide them Miriam's well to accompany them on their way.  But at this point the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to deflect their thoughts from constant worry about food and drink to concern about laws, i.e., accepting the burden of the commandments, with its concomitant element of punishment and reward.

That represented a shift to a higher level:  a people subject to a regime with rights and responsibilities invests physical and emotional energy in observing the law.  Henceforth its fate depended primarily on upholding the law:  if they obey it, they are promised reward, including a supply of water as needed.  But if they do not obey, then their complaint is on their own heads.  Thus the Torah warns forthwith:  "He said,[6] 'If you will heed the Lord your G-d diligently…then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer'" (Ex. 15:26).  The test was whether or not they would comprehend and grasp the full import of their moving to another level, to a way of life that depends on observing the laws.

This interpretation helps us understand why the Torah did not specify which laws were at issue,[7] since the emphasis at this stage was on the very innovation of introducing a new regime where there were laws by which they would be judged.[8] Under such conditions there was a chance that the people's complaints would diminish, or at least would take a different form:  if they vexed the Lord, they would understand why they were suffering, and if they obeyed Him, then there would be room for their complaints.[9]

It appears that the people stood up to the test and accepted the new regime, and in exchange they even received a reward, as the Torah immediately recounts:  "And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water" (Ex. 15:27).

I humbly suggest that this idea can be applied to Rashbam's commentary on the text at hand:

There He made for them a fixed rule—there, at Marah, by the sequence of first testing them by making them thirst for water, and then curing the water for them, thus beginning to chastise them so that they would accept the law and justice that He would teach them, while He would provide for their needs.  How did he give them law and justice?  By saying to them, "If you will heed…" (Ex. 15:26).

The idea developed here is significant for all time.  Some people think they deserve rights simply by virtue of being human, and when they are embittered they expect that someone will change their bitter lives to sweet.  Others live in a world of rights and responsibilities; they accrue rights, refrain from transgressing, and live in a regime of reward and punishment, not free gifts.  Of course, as we are well aware, not all reward and punishment is immediately evident, although this is not the place to delve further.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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