Parshat Beshalach: Faith, justice and humility

By fulfilling a commandment that we cannot understand, we declare our humility in the face of the transcendent, obedience that stems from humbleness.

January 17, 2019 14:13
3 minute read.
Parshat Beshalach: Faith, justice and humility

AT MARA, the thirsty nation saw the water source but was disappointed to find out the water was bitter.. (photo credit: PIXABAY)


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This week, we accompany our ancestors as they embark on a journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai and from slavery to redemption. The Torah portion of Beshalach, in contrast to the previous ones, begins outside of Egypt and concludes a moment before reaching Mount Sinai, where the children of Israel will experience the Revelation at Mount Sinai and hear the 10 commandments, as we will read in next week’s portion – Yitro.

The route from Egypt to Sinai was not devoid of obstacles. It contained a variety of challenges: fear of the Egyptian army chasing the children of Israel as they left Egypt; the courage needed to enter the sea and believe it would split, as indeed occurred; facing the challenge of thirst in the desert and lack of food; and war with Amalek, among others. At every stage of the journey, the Israelites had to cope with a new challenge.

One of the places where the nation camped after the splitting of the sea was Mara. Mara had a water source, but the water was bitter and not suitable for drinking. The thirsty nation saw the water source but was disappointed to find out the water was bitter. They complained to Moses, and he in turn prayed to G-d and was answered:

“…and the Lord instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet” (Exodus 15, 25).

What a miracle. The bitter water became sweet and drinkable. Could this be a hint about the process that the children of Israel were undergoing from slavery to freedom?

But in this same place, named “Mara” for the word for bitter, another event happened immediately afterward, which is described like this: “There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them” (Ibid).

There, at this place called Mara, God tested the children of Israel when he had them encounter the bitter water; and there – in that same place, the children of Israel received “a statute and an ordinance.” This is surprising. We are used to thinking that the commandments were given to the Jewish nation beginning at the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Here we discover that already prior to that event, when they were at Mara, G-d taught them “a statute and an ordinance.” What statute and what ordinance were the children of Israel given in Mara?

The midrash offers different suggestions based on the context and the meaning of the words “statute” and “ordinance.” Rashi, the famous biblical commentator, chose one of these suggestions and wrote:

“In Marah, He gave them some sections of the Torah… the Sabbath, the red cow, and laws of jurisprudence” (Rashi on Exodus 15, 25).

Not working on the Sabbath is one commandment; the red cow – the way in which one can be purified from a severe ritual impurity during the days when the Temple stood is another; and laws – the establishment of a legal system that will enact laws and allow for a proper society – was the third.

If these three commandments were given prior to Mount Sinai, it is reasonable to assume that they represent the religious platform needed from man when he is preparing to take upon himself religious obligations. We, therefore, must explore what makes these three commandments unique and what they symbolize.

The Sabbath undoubtedly symbolizes faith in creation of the world, and particularly faith in God’s benevolence, the Creator and He who manages all of reality. The Sabbath is a sacred day; it is defined as the day when man focuses on his relationship with God. A person who keeps the Sabbath is actually declaring his Jewish faith.

Setting up a legal system expresses the ambition to create a model society, one ruled by values of justice and honesty, where people act decently with one another and learn to respect each other’s rights.

But the red cow is a riddle. Elsewhere, Rashi refers to the mystery of this commandment and writes: “I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it.” This is a commandment that expresses our recognition in something that is greater than our capacity for understanding. By fulfilling a commandment that we cannot understand, we declare our humility in the face of the transcendent, obedience that stems from humbleness.

Faith, justice and humility – these are the traits necessary for receiving the Torah.  ■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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