Precursors To Torah1
He cried out to Hashem, and He showed him a tree. He threw it into the
water and the water became sweet. There he established for it a chok/ fixed
decree and a mishpat/ ordinance, and there he tested it.
Rashi: At Marah, Hashem gave them some sections of the Torah for them to
delve into. He gave them Shabbos, the Red Heifer, and civil law.
Maharal: We will endeavor to uncover Rashi’s thinking in specifying these
three mitzos. The Torah offers no explicit identification of what the chok
u-mishpat are. This actually helps us. We need to look for some mitzvah that
is so completely wrapped up in the idea of being beyond our comprehension,
that it is called plain ordinary “chok” without any other description or
qualifier. That mitzvah, of course, is parah adumah, the red heifer.
“Mishpat” fairly well means civil law to us. That leaves Shabbos. It is
possible that Rashi sees the central practice of Shabbos as so completely
counterintuitive that it, too, must be regarded as a chok whose reasoning
evades our intellectual grasp. Does it really make sense that Man should be
instructed to toil for six days, and the abruptly put a halt to all is labor
on the seventh?
What doesn’t fit well with this approach is a fourth mitzvah – one that
Rashi fails to mention here, but does point out elsewhere. In the repetition
of the Aseres Ha-Dibros in Devarim, the Torah tags on to the mitzvah of
honoring parents a reference to “as Hashem already commanded you.”2 Where
else were the Jews commanded in any mitzvos before Sinai, other than Marah?
The Torah must be alluding to the giving of this mitzvah as well at Marah.
Rashi does not mention it here on our pasuk, because he apparently was only
concerned with explaining the choice of chok and mishpat as the descriptors
of what Hashem taught them. Those terms can very well imply the parah
adumah, Shabbos and civil law, but in no way allude to honoring parents.
Kibud av v’eim, therefore, does not enter into the scope of Rashi’s focus in
his comment here.
Alternatively, the term chok applies to a continuum of ideas that remain
obscure. Parah adumah represents the end point – a mitzvah so obscure that
it seems self-contradictory (by purifying those who are tamei, but making
tamei those who are pure). Other mitzvos, however, also populate that
continuum. Certainly Shabbos does, as does any mitzvah that does not seem
self-evident. Even when a reason for a mitzvah seems appealing once we learn
about it, we must admit that we would not have discovered that reason on our
own. We still need to trust Hashem’s judgment before accepting it. Honoring
parents, on the other hand, would have occurred to us as being morally
persuasive even had we not been commanded by G-d. It is entirely off the
chok-chart; hence Rashi here makes no mention of it.
We’ve explained Rashi – but not the pasuk! Why does the Torah phrase itself
in such a way as to purge any reference to kibud av, since we later learn
that it, too, was given at Marah? Rashi addresses this as well when he
stresses that these mitzvos were given to Klal Yisrael for them “to delve
into.” Hashem wished to prepare them for the mitzvah of Torah study, since
the complaint of the people at Marah was brought on by their travelling for
three days without being preoccupied with the life-giving waters of
Torah.3 Each of the three mitzvos alluded to here (but not kibud av
v’eim) brings a different aspect of Torah study to the table. The laws of
Shabbos are voluminous. Not so parah adumah – but it presents a different
challenge, in that its single, central theme is exceedingly deep. Civil law
is built on many subtleties and distinctions that require great wisdom to
discern. Hashem wished to acclimate the people to these three challenges
that they would encounter in Torah study: topics that are large, or deep, or
built on fine distinctions.
We still must explain a puzzling passage in the gemara.4 “If Yisrael had
only observed its first Shabbos, no nation would ever have achieved dominion
over them.” The gemara means that on the very first Shabbos after it was
commanded to them, some of the people defied its laws, and went out in
search of mon to collect. Now, if Shabbos was commanded at Marah, there was
an intervening Shabbos that they observed before the mon began to fall. The
first Shabbos after the mon commenced was therefore not our first Shabbos,
but our second!
An important principle is at work here. While Shabbos was indeed given at
Marah, it did not have the full significance of Torah. At Marah, Shabbos was
commanded orally, like any other prophecy. Shabbos after Marah was
comparable to milah to Avraham, gid hanasheh to Yaakov, and the seven
Noachide laws to non-Jews. They are all mandatory, but do not rise to the
level of Torah! Becoming part of Torah implies increased complexity, i.e.
nuance and detail, rather than general principles alone. Additionally, Torah
implies instruction to delve into the full understanding of the commandment,
rather than simply complying with its demands. These factors apply only to
mitzvos that are fully part of Torah.
Shabbos only became Torah when it was fixed into the Written Law after the
mon began to descend. The Bnei Yisrael were warned before the “first”
Shabbos thereafter not to gather it on the holy day. It was that first
Shabbos after becoming part of Torah that was marred by the desecration by
those who tried to collect mon despite the warning not to.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh Shemos 15:25 and Bamidbar 15:32; Derush al ha-Mitzvos, pg. 50A
2. Devarim 12:5
3. Bava Kama 82A
4. Shabbos 118B