What Is the Book of the Covenant?
In Parshat Mishpatim, Shmot 24:3-4 we read: “Moshe came and told the people all the words of God and all the laws. The people responded with one voice and said, ‘All the words that God has spoken, we will do (na’aseh).’Moshe wrote down all the words of God…” A few verses later (verse 7) we read: “He then took the Sefer HaBrit (Book of the Covenant) and read it in the ears of the people. They said, ‘All that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen (na’aseh v’nishma).’”
What was written in the Sefer HaBrit?
Rashi brings the Mechilta’s interpretation that the Sefer HaBrit listed everything from Breisheet until the Giving of the Torah as well as the mitzvot that were commanded at Marah (B’nai Yisrael’s first encampment in the wilderness).
What happened at Marah and which mitzvot were given there?
The incident at Marah is told in Parshat Beshalach, Shmot 15:22-25:
Moshe led B’nai Yisrael away from the Reed Sea, and they went into the desert of Shur, they travelled for three days in the desert and they did not find any water. They came to Marah but they could not drink the water because it was bitter. The place was therefore called Marah (bitter). The people complained to Moshe saying, “What shall we drink?” He (Moshe) cried out to God, And God showed him a tree and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There he set before them the statutes (chok) and ordinances (mishpat), and there he tested them.
Rashi who seems to be basing himself on the Mechilta’s explanation and on the Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b, says that in Marah God gave B’nai Yisrael some sections of the Torah so that they could occupy themselves with studying them: These were the sections dealing with Shabbat, the Parah Aduma (the Red Heifer) and the Administration of Justice.
However, the Mechilta as well as the Talmud actually say that the mitzvah of Kibbud Av v’Em, Honoring Your Parents was introduced in Marah along with Shabbat and the Administration of Justice (with no mention of the Parah Aduma).
Maskil L’David tries to rectify this by saying that Rashi was quoting a midrash which has been lost to us.
Gur Aryeh explains that Parah Aduma is a mitzvah that we don’t have a reason for and therefore fits into the category of a ‘chok,’ so Rashi’s interpretation makes sense.
The Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b brings a braita:
Ten mitzvot were given to B’nai Yisrael at Marah: Seven that the B’nai Noach accepted upon themselves to which were added three more: Administration of Justice, Shabbat and Honoring Your Parents.
Why does it make sense for Shabbat and Honoring Your Parents to already have been given at Marah?
In Dvarim Chapter 5, in the second recording of the Ten Commandments- both Shabbat (5:12) and Honoring Your Parents (5:16) end with the words “as Hashem your God commanded you.” Rabbi Yehuda said: as He commanded you in Marah.
It is interesting to note that when commenting on Dvarim 5:16, Rashi states that the mitzvot of Honoring Your Parents and Shabbat were already given at Marah!
Even if we don’t know exactly which mitzvot B’nai Yisrael were given at that time, it is clear that after hearing Moshe read the Sefer HaBrit, they already had an idea of what they were getting themselves into when they said “na’aseh,” “we will do”, and they were willing to commit to taking on more mitzvot that they didn’t even know about yet when they said “nishma,” “we will listen.”
The Torah is so vast that even those who have been studying for years always find more to learn. When studying Torah and living a Jewish life we must take the attitude that B’nai Yisrael had when they first got a taste of the Torah- we will do and we will listen.