In the brief time that Bnei Yisrael are in the desert before Matan Torah, there is hardly a dull moment. They are pursued by the Egyptians and attacked by Amalek. They experience the insecurities of thirst and hunger due to a lack of natural resources. The people are anxious and irritable. Like children with their parents, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly test the boundaries of what they can demand and expect to receive from G-d.
Clearly, G-d is opting to do some testing of His own. He does not “lay out the red carpet” for B’nei Yisrael upon their departure from Egypt; instead he allows for obstacles to cross their path and for crises to arise.
What was G-d’s purpose? What were these months before Matan Torah meant to accomplish?
An answer to this question can be found by looking closely at the following pesukim in Perek 15:
(כה) וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־ה’ וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ ה’ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ׃ (כו) וַיֹּאמֶר֩ אִם־שָׁמ֨וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַ֜ע לְק֣וֹל ׀ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֗יךָ וְהַיָּשָׁ֤ר בְּעֵינָיו֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְהַֽאֲזַנְתָּ֙ לְמִצְוֺתָ֔יו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֖ כָּל־חֻקָּ֑יו כָּֽל־הַמַּֽחֲלָ֞ה אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֤מְתִּי בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֹא־אָשִׂ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י ה’ רֹפְאֶֽךָ׃ (ס) (כז) וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ אֵילִ֔מָה וְשָׁ֗ם שְׁתֵּ֥ים עֶשְׂרֵ֛ה עֵינֹ֥ת מַ֖יִם וְשִׁבְעִ֣ים תְּמָרִ֑ים וַיַּחֲנוּ־שָׁ֖ם עַל־הַמָּֽיִם׃
There are three components recorded in pasuk 25. . First, G-d miraculously sweetens the water. Second, He gives some mitzvot. And third, G-d tests the nation. There is a difference of opinion among the commentators as to which mitzvot are given at this time, as well as multiple approaches as to what the test actually was.
What commandments were given?
Rashi quotes the Mechilta who said that the mitzvot were: Shabbat, parah adumah, and dinim (laws bein adam l’chavero such as theft or fraud). It is as if G-d is giving a “mitzvah sampler” to B’nei Yisrael; a taste of the different types of laws that they would soon receive.
The Ramban believes that B’nei Yisrael received minhagim from Moshe at this time, specifically geared to how to best function in desert life, which would be relevant only until they reached Eretz Yisrael. For example, they received instructions to be modest in their tents, to listen to the elders, and to deal in a peaceful manner with strangers that would come to their camp to sell them various goods.
What was the test?
According to Rashi, the test was to see if the people would ask for mercy in a respectful way when confronted with the bitter water.
The Ramban actually suggests an alternative that aligns with Rashi’s explanation of what mitzvot were given. He says that the test was that G-d would soon further command them with additional mitzvot, and if you will listen to G-d (pasuk 26) then He will protect you and take care of you.
In addition, after citing his explanation of what the mitzvot were, the Ramban says that the test was connected to the bitter water. G-d is teaching B’nei Yisrael to be dependent on G-d and to learn to have faith that He would provide for them.
Although the approaches differ, and the text leaves room for interpretation, there are a number of important themes that emerge about this particular time period. In a way, B’nei Yisrael are in “basic training”. They experience many kinds of challenges, but there is a safety net in place. In addition, there is much more room for error without consequence at this stage of desert life. On the one hand, B’nei Yisrael are learning that G-d does provide, and on the other hand, they are beginning to understand that there are expectations (mitzvot) that they need to live up to. The chapter of the מן is an excellent illustration of both of these truths; G-d does provide, and the people must function within the guidelines that come along with the מן.
In addition to testing, and giving commandments G-d does one more thing that provides balance to B’nei Yisrael’s experience. In pasuk 27, He brings the people to an oasis with fresh spring water and sweet dates. G-d immediately demonstrates that He will fulfill the promise He made in the previous pasuk, that He is their healer and guardian.
There is much wisdom to be gained in reflecting upon G-d’s approach with B’nei Yisrael in the months immediately after leaving Egypt. As we navigate life, we are often in situations that require a learning curve. Mistakes will be made, missteps will be taken. Sometimes we are the learner and sometimes we are the guide. Either way, there is much to be learned from a close reading of these chapters.