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   by Jacob Solomon

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The thirsty desert-traveling Israelites found they could not swallow the bitter waters of Marah. They grumbled to Moses, rather than asked him to pray to G-d to take care of the situation (Rashi; c.f. Num. 21:7). G-d showed Moses a stick which he threw into the water, and it became drinkable. And there, the text adds:

'There (at Marah) He established [for the Israelite nation] a statute and a judgment, and there He tested them.' (15:25)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) brings the tradition that three laws that were in due course to be part of the Torah (Ramban) were given here, at Marah. They were - Shabbat, the laws of purification (including the red heifer), and laws within the jurisdiction of the Courts. 'There he tested them' as to whether they would grumble in a disorderly, disrespectable manner and put the blame on Moses, or if they might put their case in an appropriate manner, asking Moses to intercede with G-d on their behalf (c.f. Rashi).

Shabbat was already in the tradition (Gen. 2:3). The Torah strongly hints at it being a day out of time ('G-d blessed the seventh day and He made it holy'), even though there was not yet a formal prohibition of 'melacha' - work. Purification is alluded to by the use of the Hebrew word 'chok' (a statute) - a word elsewhere used to introduce the laws of ritual cleansing by means of the ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19:2). Court-imposed law links with the next word - 'mishpat' - (a judgment) - a word elsewhere used to open the text detailing it.

This needs elaboration. Why are these commandments chosen as 'a foretaste of what was to come' at Receiving the Torah? And what they had to do with 'there He tested them'? - a test that the Israelites actually failed.

We may learn from the act of putting up a (traditional, old-fashioned) tent. First choose the ground. No deep grass - it holds damp and insects. No facing the wind - it might take off. Then peg out the four corners - a framework for the more complex insertion of the poles and locating the guy ropes. And only then insert the central poles and peg out the tent, section by section.

The Israelites first had to become a 'site' for G-d's Revelation of His Truth to Mankind. Egypt was an unsuitable location (Rashi to 9:29). And the people had to be all together - in the right mood of gratitude, following the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea.

They then needed 'their four corners' 'pegged out'. Shabbat - a regular seven day period occurrence - linked to their former tradition. It gave the Israelites the means of linking what was to come with what was already somewhere in their belief, as a bridge to the unfamiliar parts of the Torah that were to be revealed in due course. 'Chok' - rules of purification - is explained by Rashi as being something whose rationale is not understood and has to be observed as an act of faith. That is the second cornerstone required of the Israelites - to accept the Torah, one has to put G-d's intelligence above one's own. The third cornerstone is 'Mishpat' - a system of Court-imposed law: even with the best rules, society slowly ceases to function, and trust required for safety and business deals sinks unless support by incorruptible government and legal institutions. And finally the actual test - keeping the law is not enough, but good manners (lacking in this case) sustain it in the best spiritů

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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