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Beshalach(Exodus 13:17-17:16)

"Chok and Mishpat" - From Logic to Metalogic

After(1) the momentous Exodus and the spectacular splitting of the Sea, the Jews find themselves at Marah:

So Moshe led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. They came to Marah, and they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter (marim); therefore its name was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moshe, saying, 'What shall we drink?' And he cried to God; and God showed him a tree, which when he threw into the waters, and made the waters sweet; there He made for them statute and ordinance (or judgment), and there He tested them, and said, "If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Almighty your God, and will do that which is right in His sight, and will be attentive to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am God who heals you." (Shmot 15:22-26)

A cursory reading of the opening verses may give the impression that the crisis was one of insufficient supplies; the people are in need of an efficient water source. However, the concluding verses seem perplexing: What is the connection or the relevance of statutes and judgments or ordinances as a remedy for the water shortage? Traditionally, these verses have been understood as an indication of some type of law-giving: Prior to Sinai, where the major Revelation would take place, the people here receive the first installment of Torah: statutes and ordinances.(2)

The Israelites were given ten precepts at Marah, seven of which had already been accepted by the children of Noah, to which were added at Marah social laws, the Shabbat, and honoring one's parents. 'Social laws,' for it is written, "There [sc. at Marah] he made for them a statute and an ordinance." 'The Shabbat and honoring one's parents,' for it is written, "As the Almighty your God commanded you." (Sanhedrin 56b)

The logic of the Talmud is clear: The Ten Commandments are enumerated twice in the Torah. When they are repeated, only two commandments - Shabbat and honoring parents - contain the phrase "as the Almighty your God commanded you."(3) Clearly, this phrase would be equally apt for any or all of the Ten Commandments, which had been given years before at Sinai. Why is this phrase added only to these two Commandments? The Talmud explains that some laws were actually taught at an earlier juncture - at Marah. Therefore, "as the Almighty your God commanded you" refers to Marah, and not to the first Tablets transmitted at Sinai.

Regarding the mishpatim, here translated as "ordinances" or "judgments," the Midrash explains that these are social laws:

"And these are (v'eleh) the ordinances (mishpatim)" adds to those that preceded, to what is written above: 'There He made for them a statute and an ordinance' (Shmot 15:25). Another explanation of "And these are the ordinances": What precedes this paragraph? 'And let them judge the people at all times' (ib., 18:22), and here it says, "Now these are the ordinances." With the Decalogue in between. Like a distinguished lady walking in the center of an armed bodyguard, so the Torah is preceded by laws and followed by laws, while it is in the center. Hence it says, "I walk in the way of righteousness" (Mishlei 8:20). The Torah exclaims: 'In which path shall I walk? I will walk in the path of those who act righteously in the midst of the paths of justice' (ib.) - with the Torah in the center and laws preceding it and following it. Preceding it, as it says, 'There He made for them a statute and an ordinance,' and following it, as it says, 'Now these are the ordinances.' (Midrash Rabah 30:3)

Once again, we are taught that certain laws were given to the people prior to Sinai. The question is, which laws were chosen to be taught at this juncture, and why?

The Talmud enumerated three things in this pre-Sinai category: social laws, Shabbat, and honoring one's parents. Rashi takes a different approach; in his comments on our Parsha, Rashi says:

In Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, so that they be involved in them: Shabbat, Parah Adumah and laws. (Rashi on Shmot 15:25)

Rashi diverges from the Talmudic view and replaces the commandment to honor parents with the law of Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer), a shift that has been noted by many later commentaries.(4) Perhaps even more interestingly, in his comments on other verses, Rashi does, in fact, list the commandment to honor parents as having been commanded at Marah - in agreement with the Talmudic view. Why, then, did Rashi add Parah Adumah to this category at all, and why did he omit the commandment to honor parents at this point? Let us examine Rashi's comments on a verse only 9 chapters hence in the book of Shmot (Parshat Mishpatim):

"And all of the mishpatim" - The seven Noachide laws, and Shabbat, honoring parents, Parah Adumah, and [social] laws which were given at Marah. (Rashi 24:3)

Rashi clearly states that both honoring parents and Parah Adumah were taught at Marah; has Rashi expanded the category of mishpatim to include four items? Apparently not: The inclusion of Parah Adumah can be attributed to rather straightforward exegesis of the other category listed in our Parsha,(5) chok ('statute'). The archetypal chok is, of course, the Red Heifer: this is a divine dictate.(6) The term mishpat, on the other hand, indicates judgment, adjudicated law. Therefore, Rashi would naturally include in his comments Parah Adumah, which is The Chok, alongside social laws, which are mishpat.

We should note that both Rashi and the sages of the Talmud include Shabbat in their list of the mitzvot given at Marah. The fact that there is no disagreement on this point may give us a unique opportunity to appreciate the method of exegesis with which our sages have always looked at the biblical text, as well as allowing us to appreciate the broader canvas which Rashi treats: The very next section of the Torah deals with Shabbat, and it presupposes some knowledge on the part of the people:

And he said to them, 'This is what God had spoken about: tomorrow is the day of rest, the Holy Shabbat to God...' (Shmot 16:23)

Prior to this verse, we find no discussion of Shabbat in the Torah other than the general comments in Bereishit. Nonetheless, the text makes clear reference to some earlier discussion centering around Shabbat: "This is what God had spoken about." Arguably, Rashi, first and foremost a biblical commentator, explains the straightforward reading, the "pshat" of the verse, by considering the context of the verse. Shabbat must surely have been among the laws transmitted at Marah, because Moshe later makes reference to their preceding discussion of Shabbat - which is not recorded in any way other than the events at Marah. As in the case of the commandment to honor one's parents, the verses in the second listing of the Ten Commandments indicate that these mitzvot were transmitted earlier than the rest - before Sinai, at Marah. Rashi includes Shabbat here because of the context of these verses, and includes the commandment to honor parents in his explanation of the verse in Parshat Mishpatim in order to explain the textual anomaly that singled out these two mitzvot.

A careful reading of Rashi may provide a further insight into the divergence from the Talmudic explanation of our verse. Rashi says that "at Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, to be involved in." The term sheyit'asku - to be "involved" - is not necessarily the description we would have expected. Commandments are given in order to be 'obeyed', 'fulfilled', 'kept', 'done', 'safeguarded'; these are the terms of obedience to God's commandments that we have come to expect. Indeed, the verses here include such terms as 'listen' and 'obey'! Rashi's language implies an intellectual pursuit, and not necessarily a behavioral commitment. This follows the Talmudic teaching that the events at Marah constitute the source upon which public reading of the Torah is based:

'And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water,' upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: Water means nothing but Torah, as it says: "Ho, everyone that thirsts, come for water" (Yishayhu 55:1). It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted. The prophets among them thereupon rose and enacted that they should publicly read [the Torah] on Shabbat, make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, break again on Tuesday and Wednesday, read again on Thursday and then make a break on Friday so that they should not be kept for three days without Torah.' (Baba Kamma 82a)

The events at Marah are the textual source for our practice of Torah study, but not necessarily for the practice of the commandments themselves. This argument is buttressed by the historical context. It seems incongruous that the laws of Parah Adumah would be included among the statutes transmitted at Marah: At this point, in the desert, before the construction of the Mishkan, the laws of Parah Adumah could only have been a theoretical construct, a conceptual framework. It would have been impossible for them to put these laws to practical use at that point. At Marah, then, the Jews are given certain laws to study. They occupy themselves intellectually,(7) and this is the inspiring experience for public Torah study every three days, and perhaps for Torah study in general.

We may say, then, that our analysis of Rashi's comments has established a deep connection between Marah and the laws of Parah Adumah. What remains unclear is Rashi's omission of the commandment to honor parents from the Marah list. As we have seen, there were very good reasons to enumerate honoring parents among the commandments given prior to Sinai; Rashi does so in his later comments. Why, then, does he omit them here? Perhaps the Maharal's comments on this verse can be help us understand Rashi's omission: The Maharal points out that the verse ends with, "there He tested them"; such a test, regarding the honor of one's parents, would be inappropriate.(8) The Maharal elaborates, by categorizing the Commandments, dividing them into four groups: First, commandments that are beyond logic - referred to as chok. Second, commandments whose logic would elude us had it not been for the Torah's explanation. The third type are commandments that are part of a social contract, whose logic is apparent, such as a prohibition against stealing. These commandments legislate against human desire and create the ground rules for communal life. Finally, there are commandments which are part of an individual's emotional makeup, Commandments which converge with human instinct.(9)

As the Maharal sees it, honoring parents is a most logical commandment, one that is an organic element of human nature and intelligence.(10) This does not imply that all men excel in the performance of this commandment; rather, to honor and cherish one's parents is an inborn human character that has informed human behavior since the dawn of time. Rabbinic literature routinely brings examples of non-Jews, even some distinctly unsavory characters such as Esav,(11) or pagans such as Damah ben Natinah,(12) as quintessential examples of filial relationships. The Maharal's suggestion is that a test regarding honoring parents is no test at all; fulfillment of this commandment would not constitute proof of the Jews' obedience to God's word.

This becomes more clear in light of our thesis that it was the study of Torah, and not its practice, that was laid down at Marah. The acceptance of laws such as Parah Adumah and Shabbat required a "leap of faith," a stretch of man's belief.(13) To accept and study these laws indicates something quite different than honoring parents; accepting and studying commandments that would never have been formulated by mortals, accepting and studying laws of Shabbat observance that testify to our belief in the Creator and our own unique relationship with Him, are a true test of our spiritual mettle. Honoring our parents, which is a logical - even biological - and self-evident truth, cannot be called a "test." Therefore, the Maharal says, Rashi did not include it in his commentary on the verse in our Parsha.

Taking the four categories outlined by the Maharal, we see that the Jews received all four types of laws at Marah. These may be described in more modern terms as the transcendental, the metalogical, the social and the logical. Several years ago, I heard Rav Yehuda Amital modify this teaching. When asked for guidelines for teaching the newly-observant, Rav Amital replied that this was the educational challenge faced at Marah. Extrapolating from the same principles we have discussed, Rav Amital suggested that the first steps undertaken toward observance should include laws from each of the Maharal's categories: The second category, social laws, are beyond the individual's immediate purview, as they are enforced by the larger society, but for the first category, one commandment from the interpersonal sphere - like the prototype of honoring parents, should be chosen. The third category should be represented by a law concerning Shabbat, a law involving the relationship between man and God. The fourth category, represented at Marah by the laws of Parah Adumah, should involve something which transcends human understanding.

It is not difficult to understand how people would have been attracted to the commandment to honor parents, being that it is eminently logical and appealing to human nature. Seen through the eyes of a generation only recently redeemed from hundreds of years of subjugation in Egypt, the laws of Shabbat may also have been logically compelling. Yet religious experience also necessitates something beyond this type of logic; it requires a transcendent component. There must be a rendezvous with the Divine. This is the heart of religious experience. Without it, the relationship with God is reduced to a human construct. This is what the Jews received at Marah,(14) and this is what should serve as the cornerstone of our own commitment.

 

NOTES

1. This shiur originally written several years ago has been updated.

2. Other than the laws given in Egypt which were a part of the Exodus.

3. Devarim 5:12,16: "Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Almighty your God has commanded you. Honor your father and your mother, as the Almighty your God has commanded you.

4. The Torah Temima suggests that Rashi's comments here contain an error of transmission: originally, Rashi's comment read "honoring parents"(kibud av v'em), represented by the initial letters "kaf, aleph." At some point, this was inadvertently mistaken for "peh aleph," initials for Parah Adumah. Rav Kasher, in the Torah Sh'lemah, ridicules this suggestion, asserting that all the manuscripts bear out the reading as it has been transmitted, "Parah Adumah." Numerous Rishonim, including the Ramban, cite Rashi with the term Parah Adumah. Rav Kasher then suggests that perhaps the Talmud has an alternative reading with the words Parah Adumah. See Torah Sh'lemah pages 284-285.

5. The Maharal Gur Aryeh 15:25, makes this observation, though he attacks Rashi for "deviating" from Rabbinic tradition.

6. See Bamidbar 19:2, the Red Heifer is stated in the definitive "this is the chok of the Torah."

7. The Ramban (Shmot 15:25) understands Rashi in this light; he further sees the learning as a preparation for the accepting of the Torah, which the Ramban views as a quasi-conversion process. Also see the comments of the Mahral to these verses (in Shmot) where he gives a very similar explanation.

8. Gur Aryeh Dvarim 5:16.

9. Ibid.

10. See the comments of Rabbi Epstein in the Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh De'ah section 240 law 2, where he writes that even though honoring parents is eminently logical, as is keeping Shabbat ( many nations keep a day of rest), after the sin of the Golden Calf, man's logic became corrupted. Jews are commanded, not because it is logical, but because God deemed that it would be so.

11. See Midrash Tanchuma Kedoshim chapter 15.

12. Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 31a: It was propounded of R. Ulla: How far does the honor of parents [extend]? He replied: Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama son of Nethinah by name, did in Askelon. The Sages once desired merchandise from him, in which there was six-hundred-thousand [gold denarii] profit, but the key was lying under his father, and so he did not trouble him. Rab Judah said in Samuel's name.

13. See Gur Aryeh 15:25, who insists that Shabbat is also a chok.

14. The Zohar understands that at Marah the Jews underwent a process which would cleanse them from the Egyptian exile and prepare them for the Revelation at Sinai: "Said R. Shimon further: 'The unleavened bread is called "the bread of poverty " (D'varim 16, 3), because at that time the moon was not at full strength, the reason being that, although the Israelites were circumcised, the rite had not been completed by "peri'ah", and therefore the seal of the covenant was not revealed in its complete form. But later, when this completion had been achieved-namely at Marah, where Moshe "made for them a statute and an ordinance" (Shmot 15: 25)- the Holy One spoke to them, saying: "Until now you have eaten the 'bread of poverty', but from now on your bread shall emanate from a far other region: 'I will rain bread from heaven for you' " (Ibid. 16, 4). (Zohar, Shmot 40a). R. Eleazar adduced here the verse: "And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter.... There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them" (Ex. 15: 23-25). 'I wonder', he said, 'how it is that people take so little trouble to understand the words of the Torah. Here, for example, one should really inquire what is the point of the words "There he made for them... and there he tested them." But the inward significance of the water mentioned here is this. The Egyptians claimed to be the parents of the children of Israel, and many among the Israelites suspected their wives in the matter. So the Holy One, blessed be He, brought them to that place, where He desired to put them to the test. Thus when Moshe cried to God he was told: Write down the Divine Name, cast it into the water, and let all of them, women and men, be tested, so that no evil report should remain in regard to My children; and until they all be probed I will not cause My Name to rest upon them.' Straightway "God showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters," the tree being thus identical with the Divine Name the priest has to write for the testing of the wife of an Israelite. Thus "There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he (tested) proved them." Now it may be asked: This was properly done for the women, but why include the men? But, indeed, the men also had to be probed to show that they had not contaminated themselves with Egyptian women, in the same way as the women had to be probed to show that they had kept themselves uncontaminated by Egyptian men, all the time they were among them. And all, male and female, were proved to be pure, were found to be the seed of Israel, holy and pure. Then the Holy One, blessed be He, caused His Name to dwell among them. Hence assuredly it was by the waters "there that he ... proved them." Similarly here it is through water that the kohen proves the woman, and through the Divine Name.' (Zohar, Bamidbar 124b).

Published: January 24, 2010

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