Parashat Beshalach: “And There They Tested Him”

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


In Memory of Sheine Hendele Bas Greiman z”l



“And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree, and he cast it into the water, and the water was made sweet; there He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.” (Shemot 15:25)


This verse describes the miracle of the sweetening of the water at Mara, and thereafter the making of a statute and an ordinance (chok u-mishpat) for Bnei Yisrael. What is this chok u-mishpat that is set down for them at this time? Chazal point to specific commandments, such as Shabbat and the red heifer. Their explanation demands that we try to understand the unique nature of these commandments that caused them to be chosen. In addition, we must understand how the choice of these commandments and their conveyance prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai affects their nature.


Ramban (ad loc.) understands that, on the level of the plain meaning of the text, the phrase “chok u-mishpat” refers not to some specific commandments, but rather to a command to maintain social order – “proper practices and civilization.” The Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar, adopts a similar approach, but here, too, we must deal with a number of questions to which this interpretation gives rise. First, what is the role of these practices? And second, why is the requirement to introduce and maintain such practices mentioned specifically in this context?


We have spoken in the past about the process by which the family of Yaakov is slowly transformed into a nation. Yaakov’s household, numbering seventy souls, becomes “the nation of the Children of Israel” (Shemot 1:9). This process begins in Egypt, which the Torah refers to as “the iron furnace” (Devarim 4:20). The climax of the process of cohesion comes about at the Revelation at Mount Sinai. In the verses preceding the Revelation, God tells the nation: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6).


The cohesion of Am Yisrael as a nation in its own right must have God at its center, and this is the significance of the laws that are given at this point. Beyond the important content of the “civil practices” given at Mara, there is importance in the fact that they are given prior to the giving of the Torah. The fact that they come first creates the context of national cohesion: the very existence of the nation, and the very laws of the nation, are focused on God. The “civil laws,” the social practices, also come from God.


Following the giving of these laws, the Torah recounts:


“And He said: If you will diligently obey the Lord your God, and do what is upright in His eyes, and listen to His commandments and observe all His statutes, I will put upon you none of the diseases which I put upon Egypt, for I am the Lord Who heals you.” (Shemot 15:26)


At first glance, this sounds like some sort of transaction: if we obey God and do what is right in His eyes, give ear to His commandments and observe His statutes, then the disease that was placed upon Egypt will not be placed upon us. As in every transaction, each party has the right to change its mind. Thus, a person can make the calculation on his own: he can compare the pleasure that he stands to gain from performing a sin, with the punishment that will come upon him as a result, and then choose accordingly.


Why must the act be defined as being forbidden in any case? Why can the matter not be left as a calculation of cost and benefit? Why does God not leave us with a straightforward “deal” where everyone can choose whether to “take it or leave it”?


Here we come back to the words of Ramban. The verses in our parasha are not describing a transaction, in which each side commits to upholding its side of the agreement; rather it is a covenant, a unique bond between God and His people. This people, this nation, is consolidated around its Creator; its very definition as a people flows from God’s presence in the midst of the camp. This is the purpose of these commandments given even before Sinai.


Attention should also be paid to the proliferation of verbs in the verses cited above: “obeying” (literally, “hearing the voice of”) God, “doing” what is upright, “giving ear” to His commandments and “observing” the statutes. The refraining from placing the disease of Egypt upon Am Yisrael is dependent on all of these factors. Why are all of these elements needed collectively?


Two of the verbs mentioned belong to the same sphere – the action performed by the ear. One entails “hearing,” the other – “listening”. Hearing is a lower, passive level; the sounds enter and make their impression on the consciousness. “Listening,” in contrast, is far more active; it expresses the participation of the listener and his deliberate engagement with the words spoken.


This is analogous to what we find in the Shofarot blessing on Rosh Hashana: “For You hear the teki’a blast of the shofar and listen to the teru’a, and there is none like You.” The teru’a is the more important and central sound, and it defines the day: “a day of teru’a shall it [Rosh ha-Shana] be for you” (Bamidbar 29:1). The teki'a is more of an accompaniment. Therefore, we say, God “hears” the teki’a blast of the shofar, but He “listens” to the teru’a. He not only registers it, but also understands its substance and significance. Similarly, we are required not only to “hear” God’s word, but to internalize it, to live it.


In addition, the verse mentions the “statutes” and the “judgments.” Both of these together create the covenant, the bond, between Am Yisrael and God. Both the logical, socially-oriented “judgments” (the “practices” referred to by Ramban) and the seemingly inexplicable “statutes” – perhaps those that Chazal define as having been given at Mara.


The verses regarding Mara also describe a test: “there He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them” (Shemot 15:25). The Rishonim are divided in their understanding of the concept of a “test,” which appears for the first time in the context of the akeda (the binding of Yitzchak). Some understand the concept in its literal meaning. The Rambam, in contrast, proposes that it relates to the word nes, banner, and refers to an elevation or upliftment of the person involved (Guide of the Perplexed III:32). His interpretation sits well with our discussion above. God’s purpose in giving these laws is not to “test” whether and how Bnei Yisrael will observe them, but rather to uplift and elevate the nation. The laws are given with the intention of providing the nation with moral standards and a proper social, economic and political order.


Am Yisrael must internalize its role and essence. We must understand for what reason God has chosen us and understand the moral level that God demands of us, as the verse teaches:


“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Devarim 10:12)


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Beshalach 5772 [2012].)