Though this week's Torah reading (13:17-17:16) is best known for its dramatic Song of the Sea (15:1-15:19), spontaneously sung by Israel upon their salvation from Egypt when Moses parts the raging waters of the Reed Sea, I have noticed that I always find myself drawn to other events in the parsha. In particular, I find myself always poring over the stories of a fledgling nation, a whining nation that believes itself to be helplessly abandoned and doomed to die in a daunting barren desert. But, in what might equal a kind of show of solidarity with my ancient predecessors, I have found these episodes trying and overwhelming. Not that I am an Egyptian slave, run to the ground with backbreaking labor, or that I am charged with the task of painting my doorposts with blood- no, I am simply struggling to tease out the inner meanings and themes of dozens of Biblical accounts. In short, I confess that despite my determination and persistent efforts, I concede that I know far less than I purport to know, certainly far less than I would like to know. And though I am sure that there are answers to every question, I certainly do not have them.
While Moses and Aaron are entrusted with the task of extracting Israel from the clutches of meekness, despondency, apathy, and spiritual and emotional lethargy, all of which are conditions of the Egyptian slavery, Israel's role in the Exodus process is admittedly a passive one. As each supernatural catastrophe succeeds its fellow in terrorizing Egypt, the future people of Israel seem to be little more than observers. Until the very end, one gets the impression that Moses engages Pharaoh in a battle of titans, while the Children of Israel watch with starry eyes from a safe distance in the harbor of Goshen. Just before they are expelled once and for all, the Children of Israel are told to perform the (partially) sacrificial order of the Paschal offering. And while this commandment demands a remarkable show of bravery and confidence, in that Israel is instructed to make a public show of the slaughter of the sheep, a sacred object of Egyptian worship, Israel is otherwise silent while the natural world that they know seems to implode around them.*
So it should come as no surprise that the people's will is unstable, that at the first sign of trouble they are of the conviction that their lives are in peril and that the whole Exodus has been for naught. As they stand before the sea with the formidable Egyptian army swiftly bearing down upon them, the people of Israel remind Moses that they were opposed to the whole enterprise from the very beginning, that it would be better to serve Egypt than to do in the desert (14:12) . Moses soothes the people and again prays to Gd before he is told to take his staff and split the sea. And as more wonders and miracles unfold before the eyes of the nation, as they are miraculously saved from the torrents of a warring army and a raging sea, it would seem that they achieve the ultimate apex of spirituality. "They believed in Gd and in Moses His servant" (14:31).
But this state of extraordinary spiritual consciousness is to be short-lived. When the dust clears and the celebratory singing dies down, Israel sets off into the barren wilderness on what is to become a 40 year journey. The Torah reports:
“And Moses led the Israelites away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the Shur Desert; they went three days in the desert, and they did not find water. They came to Marah, and they could not drink water from Marah, for it [was] bitter (*marim*); therefore, [it] called the place Marah. The people complained of Moses, saying 'What will we drink?' And he cried out to God, and He showed him a tree, and he cast [it] to the water, and the water sweetened; there He gave him a statute and a law, and there He tested him.** He said, 'If you heed the voice of Hashem your Gd and do what is straight in His eyes, heed all His commandments and observe all His decrees, then all the affliction that I placed on Egypt I will not place upon you, for I am God Who heals you' “(15:22-15:26).
In the first of a series of three thematically related episodes, the Children of Israel wander aimlessly into the desert and despair when, after several days, they can still find no drinkable water. Their complaints lead Moses to pray, and Gd leads Moses to miraculously change the water to make it drinkable. And then the Torah makes a number of inaccessible, apparently unrelated comments. The nature of the ‘laws’ that Gd gives the nation needs further study. Similarly, the meaning of the phrase ‘and there He tested him’ is far from certain. Finally, the reference to Gd as healer seems somewhat out of place, in the absence of plague-like conditions and without defining the commandments that the people are expected to observe. We will return to these issues shortly.
The Torah continues:
“And they came to Elim, and there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms; they camped there by the water. They traveled from Elim, and the entire community of the Children of Israel came to the Sin Desert, that is between Elim and Sinai, on the 15th day of the second month after they had left Egypt. The entire community of the Children of Israel complained of Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Children of Israel said to them, 'If only [lit. ‘Who would give’] we had died by God's hand in Egypt, where we sat by the pot of meat as we ate bread to satisfaction- for you had to bring us out to this desert, to kill this entire community by starvation!' And God said to Moses, 'Behold, I am raining down for you bread from the sky, and the nation will go out and gather each day’s [ration] on its day, so that I will test it [the nation] to see if it will walk by My Torah or not. On Friday, they will have to prepare what they bring [home], and it will be twice as much as they gather every day.' Moses and Aaron said to all the Children of Israel, '[It will be] evening, and you will know that God took you out of the land of Egypt. And [in the] morning, you will see God's glory in [that] he has heard your complaints against God; and what are we that you should complain against us?' Moses said, 'When Gd gives you in the evening meat to eat and bread- in the morning- to satisfaction, as God hears your complaints that you complain against Him; and what are we- your complaints are not against us, rather against God.' And Moses said to Aaron, 'Tell the entire community of the Children of Israel ‘Come close before God, for He heard your complaints.' And it was as Aaron spoke to the entire community of the Children of Israel, they turned toward the desert, and behold, God's glory appeared in a cloud. And God spoke to Moses [to say further]. 'I have heard the complaints of the Children of Israel; speak to them, saying, 'In the afternoon you will eat meat, and in the morning, you will be satisfied with bread; and You will then know that I am God your Lord' ' “(15:27-16:12).
Here, Israel is confounded by the lack of meat. As before, the people are concerned that their destiny in the desert is ill-fated, and that their deaths are imminent and inevitable. And as before, Gd answers their pleas and delivers the necessary provisions. However, this episode demonstrates heightened tensions. As the people’s patience grows thinner, the scope of their protest widens, and their rhetoric grows more antagonistic.
One more incident follows this pattern.
“And entire community of the Children of Israel traveled from Sin Desert to their travels, by the mouth of Gd, and they camped in Refidim; and there [was] no water for the nation to drink. And the nation quarreled with Moses, and they said, ‘Give us water, and we will drink’; and Moses said to them, ‘Why would you quarrel with me, why would you test Gd?’ And the nation thirsted there for water, and the nation complained of Moses and said, ‘Why this- taking us out of Egypt to kill me, and my children, and my cattle in thirst?’ And Moses cried to Gd, saying, ‘what will I do for this nation- they would soon stone me!’ And Gd said to Moses, ‘Pass before the nation and take with you of the elders of Israel, and your staff with which you struck the Nile you should take in your hand and go. Behold, I stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike at the rock, and waters will come from it, and the nation will drink; and Moses did so by the eyes of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place ‘Masa and Meriva’ (* Trial and Quarrel*) for the quarrel (*riv*) of the Children of Israel and for their trying (*nasotam*) Gd saying, ‘Is Gd among us or not?’” (17:1-17:6).
Israel again faces a shortage of water, and they erupt in a confrontational dispute. Moses is so startled by the people’s belligerent bickering that he feels his life is being threatened. And again, Gd instructs Moses just how to placate the people and provide for their needs.
It would be informative to note other similarities between these three episodes. In each episode, the Torah is sure to mention the location of the event. In the first and last, the names of the places derive from among the events that took place there. Marah is so named because of the bitter waters, a natural condition of the place. And Masah and Meriva is so named because of the dispute that erupted there. The Torah does not explain the sources for the name Sin Desert or Elim, but perhaps these names have thematic bases here as well. Sin seems to be related to Sinai, the place best known as the location of the communal revelation at which Israel received the Decalogue (the ‘Ten Commandments’). Sin is not quite Sinai, as Israel demonstrates that they are still unprepared for major revelation. Still, the events here generate their own small-scale revelation, as the people witness Gd’s glory in the cloud, and they come to know that ‘I am YKWK their Gd.’ And Elim, literally ‘greats’, may be related to the 70 trees and the 12 springs there. Rashi explains that the 70 trees correspond to 70 elders (Psalms 90:13 likens the righteous to the date tree), and the 12 springs correspond to the 12 tribes. The implication is that Israel comes to recognize the greatness of the elders and to appreciate the uniqueness of each tribe in Elim, and this is how it gets its name.^
In connection with each of these events, there is also a mention of trial (*nes*). As Gd tests the people and measures their fortitude of belief, they irreverently test Gd and try to determine whether they can indeed trust Him. One wonders if this also lends another meaning to the final episode in the parsha, in which Israel wages war against Amaleq. In the aftermath of the battle, which is itself fought with the struggles of belief and religion as much as it is with physical opposition, Moses builds an altar that he names ‘Gd is my (*nes*)’. The simple definition there is ‘Gd is my flag’ or ‘Gd is my banner,’ but in light of these other episodes, there may be overtones of trial. This would mandate further exploration.
Most importantly, each of these episodes deals with the basic trust that Gd wants to foster among the people. And Abravanel suggests that there is no indication of Gd becoming angry with the people in any of these events, because the people act naturally and as expected. But this is a trust that needs to be built. Rashi suggests that the ‘laws’ Gd delivers at Marah include some explanation of the laws of the Sabbath. And indeed, the laws of the manna are delivered in close concert with a certain philosophy of the Sabbath. Man must prepare for the Sabbath, and he will receive nothing new on that day. A man must not ‘leave himself’ on the Sabbath, i.e. he may not draw upon external resources on the Sabbath. At the end of any given period, he may only glean from that which he has prepared; when the seventh day falls at the end of the six days of labor, he may only garner benefit from his own work. Of course, that means that man may not create anew on the Sabbath, he surrenders himself completely to the elements on that seventh day. On this day, he may recognize that he is in fact always vulnerable to the elements. And this is the message of the three episodes.
In the first episode (Abravanel explains similarly), there is no indication that the people have actually run out of water. One can presume that they have come into the desert prepared. It is simply that they anticipate running out of water, that they fear for the future. This is why for the first three days, they do not even complain. But it is when the promise of a future source of water turns out bitter, they start to wonder what they *will* drink in the future. They wonder if the whole desert is totally devoid of drinkable water. And the message they receive is simply to perform Gd’s will, and they are assured that Gd will render any water drinkable, that they have providence and provision. The commentators note that just as Gd has turned the Egyptian water to blood, He makes undrinkable water sweet and drinkable.
In the second incident, the people again seem to have what they need. They have come from some oasis in which there was fruit and there were wells, and presumably they have brought sufficient dates with them again into the desert. (Alternatively, Hizquni suggests they are still eating from the bread they took with them in exiting Egypt.) There is no indication in the verses that they are starving. But Elim- as Rashi indicates- is also a spiritual place. (The name Elim, of course, is related to the word for ‘divine’.) And it is when Israel leaves this place (the Torah writes (*vayis’u*), the word ‘traveled’ appears in the plural- the people decide to leave Elim, as opposed to the earlier travel specifically instigated and led by Moses), when they move away from spirituality, that they discover themselves to be in a barren desert. They speak to Moses and Aaron ‘in the desert’. Though the reader is well aware that the people are in the desert, the Torah emphasizes this point to show that the complaint stems from a spiritual wasteland. And as they are in the desert, they see no future prospects for food and again complain for the future. They are not hungry! But they fear, and they complain. This is worse than the first incident, because they do not even see prospects for future nourishment. At least in the first case, they saw water. In the worst scenario, they could have had even this water. But here there were no prospects. This is when Gd shows them that they must totally rely upon Him, that He will provide enough food every day for every day, but only enough food. Their future is not in their hands- they must learn to trust that Gd will produce for them even when their seems no possible source, when they can do nothing themselves.
But some of the people are frightened again, when they are rendered totally vulnerable and dependent. At least, until now, there was a sense of movement and progress. When, as the Torah describes, they ‘camp’ at Refidim, they sense that they are again left to the elements. It requires the paramount trust when they begin to fear that they may never again come to a place of civilization or even another desert oasis. They now have no chances whatsoever of finding water for themselves. And while they have had water until now, this is the first time the Torah says explicitly that they are thirsty and that the supplies of water have been exhausted. More significantly, their fear represents a spiritual weakness more than the natural consequences of a desert reality. Gd never abandons them, and no one dies from the hunger or the thirst. But they lose their faith again, and Tradition explains that this is why the place is called ‘Refidim’, because they ‘loosened or ‘weakened’ (*rafu*) their hands from the Torah.’ As an antidote, Gd instructs Moses to draw water from the rock- the rock at Horeb. And Horeb is, of course, the place in which Moses later receives the Torah. The waters that he produces, therefore, come from the wellsprings of faith. And Israel’s thirst is ultimately quenched only when they give themselves up to ultimate faith in Gd.
* Midrash Shemot Raba (17:3) notes that Israel is redeemed from Egypt solely on the strength of the Paschal service and the performance of circumcision. The significance of these two commandments has been discussed elsewhere (ask me for notes to Bo).
** The use of several pronouns makes it hard to pinpoint the subject of the verse.
^ The events in this episode seem closely linked to the episode in Numbers 11. It would even seem that the two events are simply two accounts of the same event, except that the Torah indicates that the event recorded in Exodus happens within the first 45 days of their leaving Egypt, and the event in Numbers seems to take place one year later. A greater analysis is needed, but the Numbers account seems focused on the role of distinct individuals and sub-communities within Israel, and the Exodus account takes its perspective for the purpose of exploring the struggles of a burgeoning system of belief. In any case, the place described in Numbers 11 is named both ‘Tavera’ (Burning), related to the conflagration that took place there and burned the sinners and ‘Qivrot HaTaava’ (Burials of Desire) because of the tragedy that befell the people as they lusted for lush foods. If the places are indeed the same, then the place of the second incident we are discussing in Exodus also has a name that stems from events that took place there.
Read the full Chiddush...