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The thirsty desert-traveling Israelites found that 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 that he threw into the water, and it became drinkable. Thus:
There He established statute [chok] and judgment [mishpat], and there He tested them. (15:25)
"There He established statute and judgment." The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) brings the tradition that statute and judgment both refer to the three ordinances that were in due course to be part of the Torah. They were the laws of Shabbat, the laws of purification through the red heifer, and the laws concerning the jurisdiction of the Courts. All those were first revealed there, at Marah.
The Kli Yakar examines the connection between Marah and Shabbat. Shabbat recalls the six days of the Creation. The Torah opens with "In the beginning G-d created the Heavens and the Earth" with no further qualification, implying that the entire Creation is yesh mei-ayin; G-d created it out of nothing, ex-nihilo. Marah also included an element of ex nihilo: Moses threw wood that tastes bitter into the water that became sweet. Sweetness normally comes from sweetness, not from bitterness. Thus Marah linked with Shabbat through yesh mei-ayin.
The word "chok" (statute) occurs both here at Marah and with the red heifer, the purification from contact with a corpse. The Kli Yakar links them in the following way. Chok indicates a Torah law that does not readily make sense to human intelligence and experience. At Marah, wood that normally tastes bitter was added to bitter water. Human intelligence would expect the water to become even bitterer. Yet against human experience, the water turned unexpectedly sweet. That would prepare them to accept the parallel principle of the red heifer. For it is the ashes of the red heifer that defile the pure and yet purify the defiled.
Mishpat means laws under the jurisdiction of the court. Mishpat occurs both here at Marah and at the opening of Parashat Mishpatim, which deals with matters that are under the jurisdiction of the court.
"There He tested them". The final of fours points. Would they grumble in a disorderly, disrespectable manner and put the blame on Moses, or would they put their case in a suitable manner, asking Moses to intercede with G-d on their behalf? (c.f. Rashi)
These four points may be compared to the act of putting up a traditional 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 was a regular seven day period occurrence that linked to their tradition. Shabbat gave the Israelites the means to tune into the yesh mei-ayin that was already somewhere in their belief and enable it to access the yesh mei-ayin elements of the Torah that were to be revealed in due course. 'Chok', the 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 was 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 the trust required for safety and business deals sinks unless supported 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 spirit.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com 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:
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