A cursory glance at this week’s parsha, Beshalach, would suffice to note that Bnei Yisrael complain a lot – first, as they approach Yam Suf, when they feel caught between the Egyptians and the sea; then at Mara as they find only bitter water to quench their thirst. This continues when, at Midbar Sin, they state that they are destined to die of starvation in the wilderness, and finally at Refidim where they are convinced that lack of water will cause their premature demise.
Based on all of the above, one might come to the conclusion that the children of Israel were a difficult bunch with many demands and a short fuse who liked to yell when they did not get what they wanted. However, this would be a somewhat short sighted view of the situation. The Torah is recalling the events surrounding an enormous group of people, probably as many two million, who find themselves in the desolate wilderness with no natural resources to provide them with food or water. Would we not have cried out and complained probably many more times than they did? Before we criticize Bnei Yisrael we would do well to understand the perilous conditions under which they were travelling and to recall the verse in Yirmiyahu (2:2): “I (God) accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth your love as a bride – How you followed Me in the wilderness in a land not sown.”
With this in mind, let us revisit the events at Refidim:
From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued on their journey by the word of God; they encamped at Refidim and there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moshe “Give us water to drink” they said and Moshe responded “why do you quarrel with me, why do you try the Lord?” (Shemot 17:1-2)
At this juncture we may pose a simple question. Why did Moshe view their request for water as trying God? Surely they would need to drink? In Mara when the people came to Moshe with a similar complaint, Moshe cried out to Hashem who provided the solution. Why the different reaction this time? Before we try to tackle this question, let us quote the ensuing pesukim:
The people thirsted there for water and the people grumbled there against Moshe and said “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill me and my children and my livestock with thirst?” Moshe cried out to Hashem, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!” (Shemot 17:3-4)
At this point Moshe appears to request respite from Hashem both from the people’s cries and their demand for water. On the other hand, Moshe does not criticize Bnei Yisrael’s comments even though they seem somewhat harsh. We may also ask why there is a need to state the obvious: “the people thirsted for water”.
Ibn Ezra comments on the fact that in passuk 2 it states that “the people quarreled with Moshe” but not all the people as it had said at the opening of the Man episode. He explains that there were two groups amongst the people. One group had no water and so quarreled with Moshe and demanded that their thirst be quenched. The other group had water that they had brought with them from their previous stop. It was this latter group that were testing or trying Hashem. They demanded water not because they needed it in order to survive, but rather to see if Hashem could provide water even in the middle of the dry desert.
This suggestion of the Ibn Ezra explains why Moshe got angry with the people; he was actually only addressing that section of the nation who were testing God. The next pesukim which describe Moshe’s pleas to Hashem to provide water for the thirsty members of Bnei Yisrael, refer to the other group that had no water.
This leads us to another idea which is discussed by Rav Ya’akov Medan in the volume on Sefer Shemot in his series “Ki Karov Elecha” (P238). Rav Medan points out that the people’s concern that the lack of water will lead to their death in the wilderness is phrased in the singular form: להמית אותי ואת בני ואת מקני בצמא , me, my children, my livestock .
In an earlier essay Rav Medan suggests that theחוק ומשפט which is mentioned when the nation are provided with water at Mara was a system of rationing by which each person or family would be allotted the water necessary to survive in the harsh desert conditions. This need arose from the fact that the individual members of the nation, with their slave mentality, were used to looking out just for themselves. Part of the educational process which Bnei Yisrael underwent in the desert involved their need to understand that they were not a mere group of individuals but a nation which must function as a society. This requires individual sacrifice as each is responsible not just for themselves but for the people as a whole.
This system of rationing was obviously not internalized by the nation as in this episode, in Refidim, they expressed their concern in the singular form. Each was still looking out for their own and not for the entire community.
A combination of the two ideas, that of the Ibn Ezra and that of Rav Medan leads us to the conclusion that one group of people controlled the water resources and so had access to water when they arrived at Refidim. The remainder of the people, possibly the weaker members of Am Yisrael, were out of water and so cried to Moshe. As explained above, it was specifically those who had water who were testing God.
We suggest a further answer to the question we posed earlier as to why Moshe accused the people of trying or testing Hashem. As opposed to the earlier instances in the parsha, this leg of the journey is expressly described as being על פי ה’, by the word of God. While we assume that all the journeys undertaken by Bnei Yisrael were based on God’s decision as manifested by the cloud and pillar of fire described at the opening of the parsha, we cannot ignore the fact that at this point the Torah states this explicitly.
If this journey, the move to Refidim, was so obviously the will of God, and based on previous experiences whereby God provided both water and food for the entire nation, Bnei Yisrael should have exhibited trust in Hashem and assumed that water will be provided. The cries for water which were founded in thirst and the most basic human need were justified by Moshe; the thought that Hashem had abandoned them was not.
Either of the explanations we have raised allow us to understand why the site of this incident became known as Masa U’meriva על ריב בני ישראל ועל נסותם את ה’ לאמר היש ה’ בקרבנו אם אין – Because of the quarrel of Bnei Yisrael and because they tried Hashem by asking if God is in their midst or not? This question resonates in our ears as we may find ourselves asking the same thing nowadays. The correct answer should be obvious.
Two questions to ponder: Note that Moshe is sent with the elders of Israel to extract water from the rock at Chorev, commonly understood to be Har Sinai. What is the significance of the use of this specific rock, at this specific venue? Also, when Hashem instructs Moshe to take his staff, he states “the staff with which you struck the river (in Egypt)”. What is the relevance of this detail?
Rav Yonatan firstname.lastname@example.org