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The Israelites crossed the Red Sea. The Egyptians were no longer in pursuit. The Israelites continued to Marah, but the water was undrinkable. After Moses prayed, G-d showed him a tree which he threw into the water, whereby the water became sweet. Thereby, the text continues:
He established for them a statute and a judgment; there He tested them.
And (Moses) said (to the thirst-quenched Israelites): 'If you obey G-d, do what is right in His eyes, listen to His commandments, and observe all His statutes… then I will be G-d your healer, and never bring upon you the diseases that I brought on Egypt.' (15:25-26)
Rashi says that the 'statute and judgment' refer to Torah study. Their lack of being occupied in Torah caused the Israelites to complain to Moses so soon after being released from slavery. So G-d gave the people laws with whose details they could occupy themselves with until they received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Rashi brings the Midrashic tradition that these included the laws the ashes of the red cow used for purification, the laws of the Sabbath, and practicalities of civil law.
Indeed, the Mechilta translates 'doing right in the eyes of G-d' in the next verse as referring to one that deals honestly in business and whose fellow men are satisfied with his conduct. It continues with declaring that such a person is regarded as though he fulfilled the whole Torah.
It may be put more powerfully. The word used for 'doing what is right' is yashar. And in his final speech, Moses told the Israelites to do hayashar ve-hatov 'what is right and good in the eyes of G-d' (Deut 6:18). The Ramban says that this expression covers basic human decency. The Torah does not define what socially acceptable conduct is - beyond prohibitions such as gossip and tale-bearing - as this varies from society to society, and from period to period. Good manners involve helping others where necessary, and accepting that you won't always get what you want all the time even if you are legally entitled to it. Sometimes keeping the peace is more praiseworthy that squeezing the last penny. And knowing when, and when not to compromise.
That is the lesson from the waters of Marah. At first hand, the Israelites had seen G-d's miracles on their behalf - with the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptians. And at that point 'they believed in G-d, and Moses His servant' (14:31). But instead of asking Moses to pray on their behalf for water, they 'grumbled to Moses'. They blamed Moses. Full stop.
The right thing would have been to ask Moses to pray to G-d to supply the water they needed - respectfully. Or even to pray to G-d directly.
'The right thing to do' and 'what is right in the eyes of G-d' is not a thing that can be defined in every situation. It is something which requires a considerate, thoughtful, and positive disposition. And the development of appropriate positive social intelligence, whose precise nature varies from situation to situation.
That is what Moses told the Israelites. First 'do what is right in his eyes' - 'be a mench'. Only then you will be ready to 'listen to his commandments and observe His statues' - which you will receive in due course at Mount Sinai. And for all time - one has to endeavor to 'be a mench' so that the Torah will spiritually enrich the person…
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 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: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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