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By Nechama Stampler | Series: | Level:

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