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Shabbat Parashat Beshalach 5784

Parashat Hashavua: Just Out of Egypt and Already Chok and Mishpat

Harav Yosef Carmel

Soon after Bnei Yisrael experienced the great miracles at the splitting of the sea and appropriately sang their praises to Hashem, they arrived at Mara. There they complained of thirst and screamed out to Hashem. Part of Hashem’s response to them is described by the Torah (Shemot 15:25) as: “There He placed for [the nation] chok and mishpat (usually synonyms for laws or statutes).” But what do they mean, specifically, in context?

Rashi, based on the gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) explained: “At Mara, Hashem gave them some of the commandment sections of the Torah, with which to occupy themselves – Shabbat, the red heifer, and monetary laws.”

Many Rishonim, among them, the Ramban, asked questions on this opinion. If the commandments were given then, why are they not introduced in the normal Torah format, as the mitzvot given in Egypt were? The Rambam reconciled Rashi, explaining that they were not commanded these mitzvot, as they were the previous and certainly the subsequent mitzvot. Rather, they were told that certain mitzvot would soon be given to them. Knowing about mitzvot before they were binding is something that the patriarchs experienced. In the case of post-Exodus, pre-Sinai Bnei Yisrael, it was to get them used to the mitzvot and to know how positively they would accept them when the time came. This is what the Torah means with the next words: “… and there He tested them.”

Some Rishonim raise a specific question about one of the mitzvot that Rashi mentions. Chazal saw in the laws of the red heifer a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. This is difficult according to Rashi, as it was actually given before the sin took place.

The Ramban suggests a totally different approach. Chok does not mean statute here but practices, and mishpat means that the practices were good, balanced, and measured. This became necessary because the people entered a difficult desert, without water and supplies. Hashem taught them how to make due in this situation. Another of the Ramban’s suggestions is that Moshe taught the nation musar (ethics). This included, under chok, being prepared to be hungry and thirsty and additionally, on the one hand, calling out to Hashem, but, on the other hand, not doing so as a complaint. Regarding mishpat, this meant to love one’s neighbor, to follow the counsel of the elders, and to act modestly within the family setting. It also included acting properly with foreigners who entered the encampment and not to act like barbaric groups. In other words, the people were taught that they could pray to Hashem in their situation of austerity but to do so respectfully. Also, they had to guard their human rectitude in the settings of family and among other nations.

Rabbeinu Bachyei presents an interesting, very different approach. Hashem taught Moshe some of the basics of botany, as some of the plants they would encounter would have great health benefits, whereas others could be dangerous and poisonous. This knowledge would be very important during the nation’s stay in the desert.

Thus we see approaches that soon after leaving Egypt on the way to full peoplehood in their homeland, even before the Torah was given, the people needed an approach to acting as an independent and respectable nation and needed scientific knowledge to back it up.


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