Parashat Beshalach: Lack of water and beginnings of law

From a high to a low, quickly, but closing on a positive note. Shmot 15:22-26 shows us the Jews finishing with the Splitting of the Sea, being led away by Moshe, and then going three days without water.  When they arrive at Marah, the water is bitter, and they complain. Moshe calls out to Hashem, who shows him how to sweeten the water, after which the verse tells us that Hashem gave them “חק ומשפט, ושם נסהו,” which loosely translates as “laws and statutes, and tested them there.”

It is this introduction of some sort of law that I want to look at this week. What was it that Hashem introduced, and what was the intended message?  Of the many stimulating approaches, we here only have space to look at those of Rashi and Ramban.

Rashi’s View of Which Laws Hashem Commanded

Rashi says the commandments Hashem gave at Marah were Shabbat, פרה אדומה (the red heifer), and דינין, the requirements of setting up a court system.  It’s a problematic comment, since Sanhedrin 56b speaks of Shabbat, honoring our parents, and setting up a court system. And, as Aruch laNer to Sanhedrin notes, Rashi himself (Devarim 5;16) assumes we were commanded about honoring our parents at Marah.

However we deal with that—scribal error of some sort, but it’s not clear whether it was in the Gemara that Rashi had or in the transmission of Rashi’s Chumash commentary– we are left with two options for this first national experience with law. In the Gemara’s version, Shabbat, honoring our parents, and setting up a court system gently introduce a nation to the discipline of following commandments. Hashem’s mention of חקים would be a warning about the future, that we should start preparing ourselves for the eventual laws that would not be easy to comprehend.

Rashi as we have him thought one of these laws was a חק, a law with no obvious reason.  This would raise the additional problem that at that moment there was no way to fulfill the law of the red heifer. Ramban suggests that that was why Rashi wrote that these commandments were given to the Jews to be involved with; they were theoretical, for the Jews to study and learn and start to observe as possible or comfortable, but only became obligatory at Sinai.

This would mean Hashem was showing the Jews the sweep of law in this first experience of it.  The obligation to set up a court system was a stand-in for laws that ensure a smooth, harmonious, and well-functioning society; the laws of Shabbat teach the Jewish view of history, from Creation through the Exodus, and what those events say about Hashem’s continuing interaction with and impact on the world; and the laws of the red heifer remind us that our relationship with Hashem must lie on a bedrock of subservience, a readiness to do that which we don’t understand (even that which seems oxymoronic, as R. Aharon Lichtenstein laid out many years ago).

Ramban: Setting Up the Desert Society

In addition to explaining some of the problems in Rashi’s view, Ramban offers his own plain sense reading of the text. Based on other verses in Scripture, he sees חק as meaning a set of customs or practices and משפט a judicious way of handling any area of life. In those senses, our verse could say that Hashem taught the Jews how to live in the desert—not law, but common-sense rules for how to face a desert.

These would be practices tailored for the famine and drought that would come, Ramban says; they were being taught to call out to Hashem in times of distress, but without the complaining they did at Marah.  Note how Ramban assumes that Hashem was not interested in making the desert perfectly comfortable; Hashem wanted them to face challenges, and learn how to react properly.

Two of the examples of laws that Ramban includes are following the advice of their elders and maintaining proper privacy regarding family matters (he explicitly includes husbands, wives, and children—this isn’t only about sexual discretion, it’s about family discretion). I note these because he assumes these are obvious needs of society, before there’s any idea of Torah law.

Hashem as Our Healer, and the Natural Consequences of Disobedience

The last verse of the section promises that if we follow Hashem’s laws fully, we will avoid all the misfortunes that befell the Egyptians, because “I am Hashem, your healer.”  Rashi says that by teaching us Torah and mitzvot, Hashem is showing us how to forestall these punishments, like a doctor who recommends a diet that prevents particular illnesses (gluten-free for someone with celiac disease, sugar-free diet for a diabetic, etc.).

Ramban notes that it’s a bit odd for Hashem to promise not to bring plagues upon us and call that being our healer. He makes explicit what I think Rashi’s diet example implied, that Hashem is telling us that what happened to the Egyptians was the kind of response that comes to all those who transgress Hashem’s Will. For Ramban, this is the way the world works, and Hashem was letting us in on the secret.  Hashem is our Healer by giving us the facts of life, and some of those facts are that bad things will tend to happen to those who violate Hashem’s Will.

These kinds of comments, common in traditional sources, are casually dismissed by many Jews today (it’s most surprising when Orthodox Jews do it, since they are in theory committed to this worldview!).  Rashi and Ramban are pointing out that after their troubles with water (troubles still prevalent for many people today), the Jews were told that the way to avoid such troubles was to heed Hashem’s commands carefully, scrupulously, and—according to ibn Ezra, cited by Ramban—paying attention to the reasons behind them.

Engaging with Hashem’s commandments, seeing what they tell us technically and what they tell us broadly, training ourselves to listen to what Hashem wants instead of insisting on what we want, and being ready to even do that which seems baseless, illogical, or oxymoronic, if that’s what Hashem requires, that’s the key to avoiding the misfortunes of Egypt, to experience Hashem as our ounce of prevention. Let’s get started, I say, and get back to a world of Hashem as our Healer.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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