The Test of Obedience

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Test of Obedience


Summarized by Yehuda Septimus


In this week's parasha, we read that at Mara "Sham sam lo chok u-mishpat ve-sham nisahu" - "There [God] made for them a fixed rule and there He tested them" (Shemot 15:26). What is the content and purpose of this "chok u-mishpat," and what is the nature of this "test?"

In his commentary on akeidat Yitzchak (Bereishit 22:1), the Ramban discusses the issue of God "testing" man. Being omniscient, God knows whether or not we are capable of "passing" the test. If we are capable, what is gained by our going through the process? If we are not capable, would testing us not be an injustice? The Ramban explains that the "nisayon" is an act of kindness by God, directed only at someone who will be able to pass and designed to give him the opportunity to "bring the potential into the actual." Someone who WOULD be willing to sacrifice his son to God does not receive as much reward as one who ACTUALLY sets out to do so.

A different reason can also be offered: the very act of bringing the potential into the actual raises the level of the person's potential. It helps develop the person, deepening his commitment and building his character (see Seforno, ad loc.). It is primarily this second reason that lies behind God's test of Benei Yisrael at Mara. Receiving "chok u-mishpat" at this stage serves to build Benei Yisrael as servants of God, preparing them for to receive the Torah.

And what exactly is this chok u-mishpat? Here, too, opinions are divided. Rashi enumerates three specific mitzvot which were commanded at Mara before the Torah was given: Shabbat, para aduma (the red heifer), and "dinim." (The last is presumably a reference to one of the seven Noachide laws - to set up a judicial system. The version of the midrash in the Mekhilta counts a fourth mitzva - honoring one's parents.) The Ramban, on the other hand, explains that the "chok u-mishpat" refers to the laws that would guide Benei Yisrael temporarily, until the Torah was given.

If, according to the midrash, the chok u-mishpat consisted of very specific commandments, why did the Torah not mention them? The answer to this question lies in an understanding of the dual identity of every commandment. Each one of the mitzvot contains its own inner meaning. But over and above the uniqueness of each mitzva, there exists a general significance to submission to Divine will, following the mitzva not because of its meaning but rather simply because God commanded me to do so. According to the midrash, it was this second element which was more fundamental in the commandments of Mara. As part of the preparation for receiving the Torah, Benei Yisrael had to experience the state of submission to a higher will.

One might ask - didn't slavery in Egypt provide Benei Yisrael with the same preparation? Were they not subject to the authority of someone else's will in Egypt? It is here that the distinction between involuntary servitude to man and voluntary submission to Divine will must be stressed. And precisely here lies the test.

Dostoyevsky, in discussing the difference between slavery and freedom, points out that the slave lives a life of security. True, he works hard, but in exchange for this he receives the security of knowing where his next meal will come from. To a large extent, he is freed of the moral conflicts attendant upon free choice. The free man, on the other hand, is faced with much loftier challenge. Not only must he fend for himself, but he must choose whom he will obey. Does he submit himself to a higher ethical standard at all? Even if he chooses to do so, no one will force him to follow through in his decision. But what is more dangerous is more ennobling.

Time and again, Benei Yisrael seem on the brink of failing this challenge. The words "We shall go and return to Egypt" echo repeatedly throughout the wanderings in the wilderness. What so attracts Benei Yisrael to the life of slavery? In one word - security: "[In Egypt] we ate bread to our fill." Benei Yisrael suddenly find themselves in a "great and terrible wilderness, in which there were venomous serpents, and drought, where there was no water" (Devarim 8:15). It is in this state of freedom and insecurity that submission to Divine will takes on special significance. The chok u-mishpat of Mara represents a spiritual revolution.

The importance of this stage of preparation also lies in the way Benei Yisrael approached the mitzvot in general. We have explained why the Torah does not find it important to list specific mitzvot, but what can we learn from the list Chazal provide? Out of the four, only para aduma stands out. "Dinim" and "kibbud av va-em" can be seen as nothing more than fundamental moral principles. The way Shabbat shapes one's relationship with God is tangible. But why para aduma?

Para aduma is paradigmatic of the chok - the statute we do not understand. One might have expected that in the preliminary stages of Benei Yisrael's training, such mitzvot would be avoided: the difficulty in following a law one does not understand will only cause problems. However, the contrary is true. It was important for Benei Yisrael to realize that the FOUNDATION of Judaism is to obey the Divine decree not because it is moral but because we are commanded. Moreover, once we learn to relate in this manner to mitzvot we don't understand, we will learn to relate similarly to mitzvot we do understand. Obervance of the latter must be construed not only as ethical conduct, but also as submission to God's will.

Rav Amital once received a couple who were beginning to take their commitment to Torah more seriously. They asked which mitzvot they should start with. Rav Amital answered: Start with mitzvot you understand and find meaningful, but also accept upon yourselves at least one mitzva which you do not understand at all, and follow it diligently.

The highest service of God is the service of one who knows he has the ABILITY to disobey but does not have the RIGHT. But we must take care that our freedom does not lead to a life of morality devoid of God. We fulfill the mitzvot as "metzuvim ve-osim" - serving in accordance with commandment.

As free people, we affirm our absolute commitment to God. "Ana avda de-Kudsha Berikh Hu de-sagina kameih" - "I am a servant of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and I submit myself to Him."

(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit , Shabbat Parashat Beshalach 5757.)



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