In a memorable opening scene from the film Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, Indiana and his sidekicks leap from a booby trapped plane moments before it crashes, using an inflatable raft to both cushion their fall and to act as a sled on the snow covered mountains below them. While his friends are dubious of the wisdom of this plan, Indiana’s cajoling, coupled with the lack of alternatives, convince them to jump. The plan works, and the threesome survive the jump and begin sledding downhill, the worst apparently behind them. It is at this point, as Indiana confidently declares “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” that the raft cum sled caroms around a bend, sending the group hurtling over a cliff into a raging river hundreds of feet below.
One might imagine that Am Yisrael felt themselves on a similar roller coaster as they left Mitzrayim and set out into the uncharted wastes of the Midbar Shur. Having just been miraculously saved by the miracle of Kriyat Yam Suf, all their challenges seem behind them, when suddenly they find themselves without water (15: 22-26) and several passukim later without food (16). The smooth sledding which Am Yisrael anticipated had suddenly and unexpectedly become something much more challenging and difficult.
In this shiur I would like to focus on the first of these two stories.
The Torah describes how, three days after leaving the shores of Yam Suf, Am Yisrael run out of water as they reach Mara. When the only source of water they find in their travels turns out to be bitter, Am Yisrael complain to Moshe Rabbenu, demanding to know what they will drink. Moshe prays to Hashem, Who in turn commands Moshe to throw a tree into the spring of Mara, purifying its water.
The story ends with two enigmatic passukim (25-26), which will be the focus of our discussion. Verse 25 reads as follows:
(It was) there that (Hashem) established for them (Lit: him) Laws and Judgments, and there He tested (nisahu) them (Lit: him).
This is in fact a difficult passuk and as my translation reflects Rashi’s interpretation of the verse (and the explanation most commonly used), it makes sense to begin there. Rashi explains that after having purified the water, Hashem gave Bnei Yisrael a series of laws to follow and at the same time he tested the people (and found them wanting). What was the test? How they would approach Moshe when they discovered that they were threatened with dehydration. And how had they failed – by complaining to Moshe rather than approaching him respectfully. The obvious questions that arise (again, according to Rashi’s interpretation) are what is the connection between the giving of Mitzvot and the sweetening of the water at Mara, what were the commands that were given and why were these mitzvot not identified, and finally, why would the Torah interrupt a discussion of Am Yisrael’s being tested and coming up short with a seemingly irrelevant declaration that Bnei Yisrael were given mitzvot at this location?
The following passuk (26) is no less puzzling.
And (Moshe) said to them, if you listen to the voice of Hashem and do what is straight in His eyes, and you follow (Lit: listen to) His commands and keep His Laws, all the diseases that I have brought on Mitzrayim I will not bring on you, for I am Hashem who heals you.
Following Rashi’s “pshat” interpretation, Moshe comes to tell Bnei Yisrael that if they follow the mitzvoth (presumably the connection to the previous passuk) then they will not be subject to the diseases of Mitzrayim as Torah and Mitzvot are the appropriate preventative care prescribed by the doctor (Hashem) to prevent these illnesses.
It is not my intent to try to answer the questions we raised on Rashi’s approach to passuk 25 or to even mention difficulties in passuk 26 (see Ramban for his questions on this approach). Rather, I would like to discuss a thoroughly mystical approach suggested by Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (Ran) and then see if, with the help of the contemporary commentary of Rav Elchanan Samet, we can make that approach a bit more palatable to the rationalists amongst us.
Ran (Derashot HaRan, Drasha #6 pp 100-102) develops the idea that doing mitzvot is the true path to preventing physical disease and deterioration. In short, a spiritually strong individual will also be a physically robust one, and a spiritually weak person will also be physically frail. This, says Ran, is the message inherent in our passukim. The verse which suggests that there was a test at Mara is difficult. What precisely was being tested? Ran rejects Rashi’s approach that it was Bnei Yisrael being tested, since this does not fit with our typical understanding of the concept of Hashem testing man. Generally we posit that God tests man for one of two reasons. One possibility is that an individual is being tested in order to demonstrate a Kiddush Hashem by the way he responds to the test. When outsiders see an individual successfully navigating a trial they experience a sense of appreciation for what the individual has accomplished and also for Hashem, in whose name this person has acted.
The second possibility is that Hashem is administering the test for the sake of the one being tested, so that God will be able to reward that individual for having successfully passed the test. A corollary of this approach is that Hashem only tests those who will pass the test. Rashi’s explanation fails to meet these standards. After all, according to Rashi, Bnei Yisrael failed their test so there was neither Kiddush Hashem nor reward.
As a result of this question, Ran suggests a radically different explanation to our passukim. Ran suggests that the laws referred to in the verse are not mitzvoth that were given to Am Yisrael at this time. Rather, these are the laws of nature – or, more accurately, the laws of God’s control over nature. What then is the test that the passuk refers to? Ran answers this question brilliantly. Hashem is testing the primacy of His law. Will God’s law prove superior to the laws of nature? It was at Mara where Hashem tested the supremacy of His law and His will over the laws of nature, and it was at Mara where this supremacy was demonstrated. God’s law passed the test.
With this in mind the next verse flows smoothly. Once we are talking about the supremacy of Hashem’s law and His will, and following a demonstration that the laws of nature must necessarily submit to God’s will, the message that keeping mitzvoth will protect a man from illness is obvious. “For I am Hashem who heals you”, says the Torah. I am Hashem who controls nature, and therefore can ensure that observance of Torah and Mitzvot will preserve your life and your health.
As I mentioned when introducing the Ran, the concept that one can somehow neglect his physical body on the assumption that a well developed spiritual identity will somehow keep him healthy is a highly mystical one which I don’t recommend trying at home. Nonetheless, Rav Elchanan Samet, in his just published third series of Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, offers a truly ingenious explanation which I believe gives a rational twist to Ran’s position.
(This is my personal take – Rav Samet does not mention Ran in his analysis. Of course, as is always true with one of Rav Samet’s masterful analyses, there is far more to be learned from it than the idea that I am quoting. Reading the entire essay is always a worthwhile endeavor)
Rav Samet suggests that we can view the first part of our story the sweetening of the bitter water, as a parable teaching us the message of the second half, namely the purification of Am Yisrael from the diseases, both physical and spiritual, of Egypt. In Rav Samet’s reading, the waters of Mara are sweetened by a physical tree, but that tree reminds us of the true Etz Chaim, the Torah. With this in mind we can understand the idea of why Hashem gave us mitzvot at Mara. What we have here is a classic example of a “mashal” and a “nimshal”, a parable and its attendant message. The message is that this same Torah can heal us from the diseases of Egypt, and more importantly can lift us up from the spiritual wasteland that was Egypt and allow us to realize our spiritual potential.
Let me close with how Rav Samet himself so beautifully puts it: The story of Yitziat Mitzrayim describes Bnei Yisrael’s freedom from slavery. The story of Kriyat Yam Suf describes the Jewish People’s emancipation from fear of Egypt and how that fear was replaced by the awe of God. The story of Mara describes the beginning of Kabbat Ol Malchut, and the concurrent release from the degradation of Egyptian culture, to be replaced by the concept of Hashem as our healer.
כן יהי רצון