The Covenant at Mara

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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The Covenant at Mara

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



            The first place that Bnei Yisrael reach after leaving Egypt is Mara: "They came to Mara, and they were not able to drink the water from Mara for it was bitter; therefore the place was called Mara" (Shemot 15:23). Further on, we read, "There He made for them a statute and judgment, and there He tried them" (15:25). It is not clear what exactly happened in Mara, and why this place is so important that specifically here we are told that God "tried" Bnei Yisrael. Mara appears, at first, no different from all the other places where Bnei Yisrael encamped on their way to Eretz Yisrael; indeed, in the list of the stations in parashat Masei, Mara appears alongside the other place names – Kivrot ha-Ta'ava, Sukkot, Refidim, etc. – with no indication of anything special.


            However, closer inspection reveals that there is a difference between the complaint that is recounted to us here and all the other complains that we encounter during the course of the desert wanderings. In every other complaint, we find, at some stage, an expression of the desire to return to Egypt: "We remember the fish that we ate freely in Egypt" (Bamidbar 11:5); "If only we could have died by God's hand in Egypt" (ibid. 14:2); "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt" (ibid. 14:4). At Mara there is no mention or threat, on Bnei Yisrael's part, of returning to Egypt.


            What is the significance of this detail? To answer this question, we must address a different one. The Midrash tells us that Bnei Yisrael, enslaved in Egypt, had reached the 49th level of impurity, but had not yet reached the 50th level, and therefore the Holy One was still able to redeem them. What was this 50th level, which Bnei Yisrael had not attained? It is difficult for us to know what the 26th or 42nd level were, but it seems that the 50th level – the point from which there would be no return – can be known. The case from which we deduce this level is the famous story (Avoda Zara 17a) about R. Elazar ben Dordaya, its message being that "It (i.e. repentance) depends only on me." In other words, as long as a person genuinely wants to return to God, to do teshuva, the possibility exists for him to do so.


            We know that in Egypt Bnei Yisrael were engaged in idolatry, as described by the prophet Yechezkel (chapter 20). Nevertheless, two things would appear to separate this 49th level of impurity – which characterized Bnei Yisrael – and the 50th level, which they did not attain. The first is family purity: when the family is no longer pure and Bnei Yisrael are assimilated amongst and merged with the Egyptians, then, technically, there is no nation to redeem; everyone would be non-Jews or mamzerim. This, however, is merely a technical point. The more fundamental difference between the state of Bnei Yisrael on the 49th level of impurity and the final, irreversible step was that there remained a will to be redeemed. So long as Bnei Yisrael were not reconciled to their suffering, to their status as a nation of slaves, there was still hope for their redemption. And this they did not relinquish.


            We may say, then, that the test of Bnei Yisrael at Mara was precisely this: were they still at the 49th level, and capable of receiving the Torah and being redeemed, or had they reached the 50th level – an irreversible and irredeemable state? The fact that, despite their demand for water, they did not express any desire to return to Egypt proved that they passed this test.


            In order to understand more deeply what happened at Mara, we must pay attention to the parallel between the episode of Mara and the procedure prescribed for a "sota" – a married woman suspected of adultery. In the latter case, the Name of God is inscribed and then blotted out in the water; if the woman is guilty, the water becomes bitter. At Mara, the water was bitter to begin with; according to the Midrash, a branch was inscribed with God's Name and cast into the water, and it became drinkable.


            What exactly happens to a woman who is a sota, and who drinks the water? We are not speaking here of a person who is above suspicion. Yechezkel describes a sota and it is clear that she has been with a man other than her husband, and has already been warned once; the question here is simply whether she went "all the way" or stopped herself at the last moment before being defiled. The procedure is not meant to clarify whether she is virtuous and her loyalty to her husband is above question; she is clearly very close to deviation from marital fidelity, and what the Torah wants to establish is whether she is still able to do teshuva, or whether her actions have led to a situation where there is no possibility of return.


            In a certain sense, as we have explained, this was the situation of Bnei Yisrael at Mara, where they had to pass a test and show whether or not they had reached the point of no return. The fact that the water became sweet – paralleling the water given to the sota remaining sweet – showed that there was still hope. Clearly, the nation here was not assumed to be pious and of great righteousness; nevertheless, the fact that the water did not remain bitter demonstrated that the path to teshuva was still open.


            The final point we must clarify is the significance of the conclusion of the section on Mara: "If you will listen diligently to Me, to observe My commandments, My statutes and My teachings, all the diseases that I placed upon Egypt – I shall not place upon you, for I am the Lord, your Healer" (Shemot 15:26). Usually, conditions are presented in the opposite manner: if you do such-and-such, you will receive X, if you do not, you will suffer Y. Here, however, the promise is only that if you do such-and-such, you will not suffer Y. What is the meaning of this formulation? God gives no incentive here at all; all He tells us is that whoever observes the Torah will not suffer!


            This question is such a deeply perplexing one that we are forced to propose a sort of "chesurei mechasra" – something is missing and we will fill it in. In Sefer Devarim, we find the covenant forged on the Plains of Moav, and there the conditions are formulated in the way we would have expected to find them set out here. "It will be, if you listen diligently to Me" (Devarim 28:1) – the introduction is exactly the same as in our case, but then we find a list of blessings that Bnei Yisrael will enjoy if they follow God. Only afterwards does the Torah go on to say, "But if you will not listen to Me" (Devarim 28:15) – and then describes the curses that will befall those "who do not observe the words of this covenant." A review of these curses reveals that they are an exact parallel to the plagues of Egypt: "You will grope about at noon, as the blind grope about in darkness" (Devarim 28:29); "God will strike you with pestilence" (Devarim 28:21); "God will place among you all the evil illnesses of Egypt" (Devarim 28:60); and ultimately, "God will return you to Egypt in ships, in the direction that I told you that you would not see again, and you shall be sold there as slaves and as maidservants, and none shall buy" (Devarim 28:68). In other words, this is precisely the elaboration of the covenant that we find in our parasha: "All the diseases that I placed upon Egypt – I shall not place upon you." Hence, I believe that the covenant that Bnei Yisrael accepted upon themselves at Mara is the covenant that they accepted later on the Plains of Moav; the Torah simply abbreviates here.


            This being the case, we may conclude that the importance of Mara is twofold.  First, it was proven there that Bnei Yisrael were still open to repentance and could still be redeemed, for they had not yet attained the 50th, absolute, level of impurity. Second, Bnei Yisrael accepted God's covenant there, with the understanding that if they would listen to God they would be showered with His blessings, and if not – "all the diseases which I placed upon Egypt" would – heaven forefend – be upon them also.



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Beshalach 5765 [2005].)