Parshat Beshallah is made up of two parts. The first part sings the glories of God’s triumphant victory over the children of Israel’s Egyptian enslavers while its second half recounts the tribulations of the desert trek. Days after the miraculous crossing of the sea, the children of Israel were beset by the lack of fresh water to drink. They, consequently, complained to Moshe, their prophetic leader, who, in turn, requested from God a remedy to their dire situation and God answered them in kind:
And he (Moshe) cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree, and he flung it into the water, and the water turned sweet. There did He set for him a statute and law (hok u’mishpat), and there did He test him. (Exodus 15:25)
This verse presents two exegetical problems. The first is that this response seems to connect two disparate subjects. What does the request for potable water have to do with setting forth a code of law? And also, as Robert Alter points out in the notes to his translation of the Torah, the significance of the words “hok u’mishpat” is uncertain since, as yet, the Torah has offered no such legislation.
Already in the period of the Mishnah, these questions provided the sages with an opportunity to offer concrete suggestions as to what these “statutes and laws” might be. While there are several alternative versions of this midrash which name different commandments, here I will present just one:
There did He set for him a statute and a law – ‘A statute’ that is the law about Shabbat, ‘A law’ that is the law about honoring father and mother – these are the worlds of Rabbi Yehoshua; Rabbi Eliezer of Modiin said: ‘A statute’ refers to the laws against incestuous practice…, ‘A law’ refers to laws about robbery, about fines and about injuries. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Vayisa 1, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 156)
Each of these interpretations are likely based on textual associations. These two sages seemingly debate which mitzvot are somehow foundational to the nation’s identity and social and religious organization.
While these sages sought to determine definitive content for these laws, the idea of introducing law into the narrative storyline brought the iconoclastic religious philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibovitz (Germany, Israel 20th century), in his inimically rationalist style, to tease a significant message from the sages’ midrashic interpretation of this verse:
In presenting [this legislation] while dealing with the height of the daily problems during the desert trek, as the people reveal their lack of faith and lack of recognition of God, the Torah revealed an instructive lesson… The life of religious dedication to God was not intended for a world ruled by the miraculous but rather for the daily reality filled with difficulties, worries, troubles… things that make up the reality of normative human beings, for these commandments reveal the possibility for human repair, for societal repair, for repair of the world. (abridged)
One of the primary purposes of religious life and law is regulating the good life and good society. It should not be surprising then that the Torah and the sages sought to integrate God’s law into the lives of God’s people at the time of its inception. This is an important reminder that that which is good in life is good because it is lived within a certain framework – one which helps bring out the best in us as people and our integration into the whole of a good society.