B parashat hashavua b

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We see that certain laws were taught prior to Sinai. The question is, which laws were chosen to be taught at this juncture, and why?

As we have already seen, the Talmud included in this pre-Sinai category social laws, Shabbat, and honoring one's parents. In his comments, Rashi says:

In Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, so that they be involved in them: "Shabbat, Red Heifer and Laws." (Rashi on Exodus 15:25)

Rashi replaces honoring parents with the laws of the red heifer parah adumah, a shift that has been noticed by numerous commentaries.2 Perhaps even more interestingly, in other places Rashi does list honoring parents as having been commanded at Marah. Why, then, did Rashi add parah adumah to this category at all, and why he omits the commandment to honor parents at this point.

In Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21 to 24) Rashi writes:

The seven Noachide laws, Shabbat, honoring parents, red heifer, 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. The inclusion of parah adumah can be attributed to simple exegesis. The term used in the Torah was chok -- a law that has no explanation. The archetypal chok is, of course, the red heifer. The term mishpat, on the other hand, indicates law that does have an explanation. Therefore, Rashi would naturally include in his comments the red heifer law, which is the chok, and social laws, which are mishpat.

But then, why did Rashi include Shabbat?


The answer lies in an appreciation of 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 the Lord had spoken about -- tomorrow is the day of rest, the Holy Shabbat to the Lord." (Exodus 16:23)

Prior to this verse, we do not find any discussion of Shabbat in the Torah other than the general comments in Genesis. Nonetheless, the text makes clear reference to some type of earlier discussion centering around Shabbat. Arguably, Rashi, first and foremost a biblical commentator, is attempting to explain the simple reading of the verse, and therefore lists Shabbat among the laws transmitted at Marah, based on the context of the verses.

On the other hand, in Parshat Mishpatim, Rashi lists what had been taught prior to the revelation at Sinai, and he incorporates the Talmudic tradition, also citing the commandment to honor parents.

A careful reading of Rashi may provide another solution to this problem. Rashi says that "at Marah they were given a few of the sections of the Torah, so that they be involved in them." The term sheyit'asku, "to be involved," implies an intellectual pursuit, and not necessarily a behavioral commitment. This follows the teaching in the Talmud that Marah is 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: Everyone that thirsts, come for water (Isaiah 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 law on Shabbat, make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, make a 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 source of Torah study, but not necessarily for the practice of Torah.


This argument is buttressed by the inappropriateness of the inclusion of the red heifer among the statutes transmitted at Marah. At this point, in the desert, before the construction of the Tabernacle, the laws of red heifer, indeed the entire concept, could only have been a theoretical construct. Therefore, at Marah which is the inspiring experience for public Torah study every three days, the Jews are given some laws to occupy themselves intellectually.3

Why, then, is the commandment to honor parents not included?

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.

The Maharal categorizes the commandments, dividing them into four groups:

  • Commandments that are beyond logic -- referred to as chok.

  • Commandments whose logic would elude us had it not been for the Torah's explanation.

  • Commandments which are part of a social contract whose logic is apparent, such as a prohibition against stealing, which legislate against human desire.

  • Commandments which are part of an individual's emotional makeup, that is commandments which converge with human instinct.

Honoring parents is of the fourth type, a most logical commandment, one that is within human nature. This does not imply that all men excel in the performance of this commandment; nonetheless it is part of man's inborn character to honor and cherish his parents.

The Talmud routinely brings examples of non-Jews or unsavory characters as quintessential examples of filial relationships. The Maharal's suggestion is that a test regarding honoring parents is incongruous.

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 the red heifer and Shabbat required a stretch of man's belief. To accept and study the laws of honoring parents can not be called a "test." Therefore, the Maharal says, Rashi did not include it in his commentary on the verse in our Parsha.


At Marah the Jews received all four types of laws:

Transcendental Metalogical Social and Logical

I once heard Rav Yehuda Amital modify this teaching. When asked for guidelines for the newly-observant, Rav Amital replied that this was the educational challenge faced at Marah.

The first steps undertaken toward observance should include a law in the interpersonal sphere -- like the prototype of honoring parents. The second category should be represented by a law concerning Shabbat, a law involving the relationship between man and God. The third category, represented at Marah by the laws of parah adumah, should involve something which transcends human understanding.

We understand how the people would have been attracted to a law like honoring parents, being 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 would be reduced to a human construct. This is what the Jews received at Marah, and should serve as the cornerstone of our own commitment.


  1. Deut. 5:12,16: "Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God has commanded you." And "Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you." (return to text)

  2. The Torah Temima suggests that this Rashi represents an error of transmission: originally, Rashi's comment read "honoring parents" in Hebrew, kibud av v'em, represented by the letters kaf aleph. At some point, this was inadvertently mistaken for peh aleph, initials for para 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. Numerous Rishonim, including the Nachmanides, cite Rashi with the term para adumah. Rav Kasher then suggests that perhaps the Talmud has an alternative reading with the words para adumah. See "Torah Sh'lemah" pages 284-285. (return to text)

  3. Nachmanides understands Rashi in this light, he further sees the learning as a preparation for the accepting of the Torah, which Nachmanides views as a quasi conversion process. Also see the comments of the Maharal to these verses where he gives a very similar explanation. (return to text)

B) mayanot (by Rabbi Noson Weisz)

Run for Your Soul

It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people... (Exodus 13:17)

All the commentators are perplexed by this verse. Why does it say "when Pharaoh sent out the people"? Surely the Torah ought to say "when God took the children of Israel out of Egypt." Pharaoh was forced to succumb to the Divine will by the ten plagues. It wasn't his idea to send out the Jews. Why does the verse imply that it was only because he sent us out that we left?

This difficulty is even more glaringly obvious in a later verse.

It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled... (Exodus 14:5)

Rashi quoting rabbinic sources explains the background to the verse thus: Pharaoh sent some of his guards along with the Jews to make sure that they did not violate the three-day limit placed on their royal permission to leave. When the Jews showed no sign of stopping or turning around after three days, Pharaoh came to the conclusion that they were attempting to flee, and he duly decided to give pursuit. At this point they were AWOL and he was entitled to resort to punitive measures to force them to return.

Once again the point is made that the Exodus has something to do with Pharaoh. How can this be reconciled with the idea that:

God strengthened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he pursued the Children of Israel -- and the Children of Israel were going out with an upraised arm. (Exodus 14:8)

Nachmanides says that they left with the full trappings of nationhood -- banners flying etc. -- showing that they left on their own steam not under Pharaoh's terms. Which of these images represents the true Exodus?


The answer turns out to be quite complex. The key to understanding it is the realization that there are really two Exoduses -- a physical one and a spiritual one.

The physical Exodus had nothing to do with Pharaoh, and in physical terms the Jews indeed left with an "upraised arm," but the spiritual Exodus was a different story altogether.

When people who have become intertwined with each other over a period of 210 years separate, much more is involved than physical departure or the clear demarcation of material assets. Such separations are comparable to the breakup of families brought about by the end of a marriage, a complicated messy business indeed, always accompanied by considerable emotional trauma.

While this is a rule that applies to all human separations, it is especially true in the case of the Exodus. In psychological terms, the Exodus was akin to jumping off a cliff. The Jews left Egypt where life may not have been wonderful, but was quite predictable, and therefore safe and secure in a way, to go into the desert where there was no food, water or shelter. At the climax of their journey, this people coming straight out of a background of 210 years of subjugation, faced the prospect of a difficult war against trained armies who outnumbered them by far.


To be a participant of the Exodus meant to abandon your entire sense of security, to lose the predictability of life, and place yourself and your future entirely into the hands of God.

To give just one illustration of the psychological difficulty involved:

Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel, "In the evening you shall know that God took you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the glory of God..." (Exodus 16:6-7)

Nachmanides explains this according to the Talmud (Yuma, 75b). The Jewish people complained about the lack of bread and meat. God sent both miraculously, the manna and the birds, but the meat came at night and was not delivered to them with joy as man can survive without meat so they should not have asked for it. The manna was provided joyfully as man cannot live without bread. In either case both began to fall only on the 15th day of the month of Iyyar, a full thirty days after the Exodus. Until all the supplies they took out of Egypt were totally exhausted, God provided nothing.

In other words, you could not even complain to God about the lack of food until all your supplies were totally exhausted. Reserves for tomorrow were not an option. Then, when God was finally prepared to listen to fears of starvation, he wanted the people to ask Him for only the bare necessities of survival.


Imagine yourself living for forty years with no savings, no house, no source of new clothes, no business, no job, without ever having provisions for the next day. The manna fell each day for only that day and could not be stored. Such a life totally ignores the emotional human need for a sense of security. In the conditions of the desert your total security is your ability to rely on God, a being over whom you have zero control by definition.

Nachmanides explains that this was the very point of the manna, and of the entire desert experience.

Behold! I shall rain down for you food from heaven; let the people go out and pick each day's portion on its day, so that I can test them, whether they will follow my teaching or not. (Exodus 16:4)

The word "test" employed here does not imply an examination. The test consists of the subjection of the Jewish people to an ongoing existential conflict between their innate feelings of anxiety -- arising out of the human need to feel that one's future is safe and in control of one's own hands -- and their willingness to entrust their lives in God's hands.

The Jewish people needed to internalize the lesson that this desert experience was the accurate reflection of the reality they chose when they left Egypt. They needed to realize that any sense of security they might derive from their possessions or from their skills would be forever illusory. The spiritual essence of the Exodus experience was the willingness to face the fact that the only sense of security that a Jew can have in this world comes from the cheerful acceptance of the fact that his fate and his future are in the best possible hands -- God's.


This realization, a basic article of faith for a Jew, represents the spiritual Exodus that was as real as its physical counterpart, but much more difficult to accomplish.

In this spiritual Exodus, the Jewish people, who were beset by the same insecurities as all other humans, have to manage to separate themselves from their psychological need to feel in control of their future without becoming too traumatized to enjoy life and without becoming crippled by feelings of anxiety. The physical bondage of Egypt was accompanied by the spiritual bondage to physicality, imposed by the need to feel in control. You cannot break one without the other.

Indeed, the rabbis tell us that most Jews didn't make it.

The Children of Israel were armed when they went up from Egypt. (Exodus 13:18)

The Hebrew word employed for "armed" is chamushim, which literally means "one-fifth." The Rabbis learn from this that four out of five Jews refused to leave and died in the days of darkness. (See Rashi in the name of the Midrash.) It is not that these Jews were so eager to continue their state of bondage in Egypt. It is not that they entertained doubts about God's existence. They simply could not face the life of total insecurity that Moses was asking them to undertake in the name of God.


Pharaoh knew his Jews. While he fully realized that God had the power to forcibly take the Jewish people out of Egypt physically, he could not imagine that they could leave Egypt psychologically.

He could not imagine that they wouldn't return. Where would they go? They couldn't stay in the desert after all. What would they do? Engage in wars of conquest? Peace loving Jews, with no military experience, setting out to conquer warlike peoples? The very thought was ludicrous. Pharaoh was "sending" the Jews out, because he knew they had no alternative to him in human terms. They may have left with all the trappings of nationhood but they would recover from their euphoria and be forced back to Egypt and to his rule by the grim realities of life. Despite God's power, they remained his people.

Indeed we find that the Jewish people were divided in their reaction to the approaching Egyptians.

Pharaoh approached. The children of Israel raised their eyes and behold, Egypt was journeying after them and they were very frightened. The children of Israel cried out to God. They said to Moses, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Is this not the statement we made to you in Egypt saying, 'Let us be and we will serve Egypt'? For it is better that we should serve Egypt than that we should die in the wilderness!" (Exodus 14:10-12)

Nachmanides explains that when the Egyptians approached, the Jewish people separated into groups. One group turned to God in prayer; one group attacked Moses as a false prophet; while still another group said the whole Exodus process was flawed. Despite all the wonders they had witnessed, a large portion of the Jewish people was still deeply skeptical of Moses and his message. In their hearts they were still attached to Pharaoh.

And then the sea split -- the epiphany of the spiritual Exodus.


When they were still in Egypt Pharaoh had asked Moses and Aaron: "Who is YHVH that I should heed his voice and send out Israel? I do not know YHVH nor will I send out Israel."

They answered: "The God of the Hebrews happened upon us..." (Exodus 4:1-3). The word "Hebrew" means literally someone who passed over to the other side; in this case it refers to the people that emerged on the other side after having passed through the splitting of the sea. (Midrash Shmot Raba 3:8)

In other words, we learn that YHVH -- God in His transcendent identity -- will not be fully recognizable in the world until after they pass through the sea.

There is a quite remarkable but subtle aspect to this particular miracle that perfectly encapsulates the idea of this essay.

The most bizarre aspect of Pharaoh's behavior in the entire Exodus story is his willingness to follow Israel into the sea. He surely understood that the splitting of the sea was a miracle provided by God for the express purpose of allowing the Jewish people to escape his clutches. What could have possessed him to follow?

Nachmanides explains that Pharaoh was misled by the nature of the miracle itself.

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God moved the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and He turned the sea to damp land and the water split. (Exodus 14:21)

There was no doubt that this was miraculous in itself, but even if the cause was miraculous the effect was natural. Thus Pharaoh believed that it was safe to follow the Jews into the sea. As long as the Jews were in the artificial canyon created by the miracle, the canyon could not vanish. If it vanished for him, it would vanish for the Jews as well. As long as the Jews didn't drown, neither would he. The Egyptian experience of entering the sea was going into an area of dry land.

Not so on the Jewish side. When the Jews entered the sea they went down into the water. The sea did not split till they experienced the sensation of drowning in the water that came to over their noses. Nachshon ben Aminodov went first, but they all entered the dry land in the sea only by passing through this sensation of drowning. (Midrash Tehilim 114:8) They did not experience the miracle as the creation of a natural canyon. They experienced the entire crossing as living in the grip of a miracle. They had the sensation of being transported through what was really water, held in the gentle clasp of God's hand.

When the sea closed over the Egyptians, the Jews were still in it. Pharaoh's natural canyon closed and the Egyptian army was drowned, but Israel's passage through the waters in the palm of God's hand continued undisturbed.


The taste of life inside a miracle was a brand new taste in the human mouth. This new flavor is the essence of the spiritual Exodus.

In order to accept living in the palm of God's hand with equanimity, it is not enough to believe in miracles. You have to leave the world of nature behind altogether and enter a brand new miraculous world where different rules apply. In this new miraculous world everything comes directly to you straight from God without using the channel of natural processes. The connection is between your soul and God directly, entirely bypassing the medium of nature. In this miraculous world the notion of saving for tomorrow doesn't exist. You have different ideas about what things constitute the necessities of life; as there is no need to maintain control over your survival, your notion of what you need to survive changes.

Of course no one lives in that miraculous world every moment of the day. A dedicated Jewish life can never be entirely free of conflict. We Jews are ordinary human beings with the same innate insecurities that beset the entire species.

As hard as we strive to place ourselves within the miraculous world of the spiritual Exodus described in this essay, a part of our beings necessarily remains in the everyday world of nature. This remnant will always send us the message that we must control our lives to be secure, that we must be masters of our own future. It refuses to allow us to place ourselves entirely in the hands of God.


Moses said, "This is the thing that God has commanded: a full measure of it shall be a safekeeping for your generations, so that they will see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness when I took you out of Egypt. (Exodus 16:32)

The Mechilta tells us that this manna was used by Jeremiah, some 1,000 years after the Exodus, to chastise the Jewish people of his time. He told them that they do not devote enough time to Torah study. They answered him that they would happily study more but they need to make a living. This consumed so much of their time that they have very little left over to devote to Torah study. Jeremiah showed them the jar of manna Moses was referring to. He explained to them that God can always provide, and that the lesson of the spiritual Exodus is that He will provide for those who are willing to place themselves in His hand and follow Him into the wilderness.

In order to taste the flavor of the spiritual Exodus every Jew must attempt to decrease the part of his being that remains attached to the natural world and try to focus on the part of his being that experienced the splitting of the sea and became a Hebrew.

As long as we attempt to remain within the false security of the cocoon of the natural world, no matter how observant we may be, we cannot leave Egypt and follow God into the desert. Those who attempt to fully reconcile their Judaism with maintaining total control over their lives, and squeeze it into the time remaining after all the worries about the house and the job and the bank account are fully attended to, will never experience the taste of life in God's palm. They will never eat manna.



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