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Parashat Beshalach: Testing in the Desert by Yaakov Bieler

January 31, 2012 by  
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The test of “Mara”.

Immediately following the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the first opportunity for the freshly minted “Jewish people” to interrelate with HaShem and His Prophet Moshe, was at Mara (Shemot 15:22-27). It was here that in response to the people’s request for potable water, HaShem taught Moshe what was to be done in order to sweeten bitter waters, and the thirsty Jews were able to drink to their hearts’ content. The entire incident is categorized in 15:25 as a “Nisayon” (test/trial) of the people, but it is unclear from the text what is the nature of this test, and whether or not the people are to be considered to have passed or failed.

Two general types of “trials” in the desert.

                Rabbeinu Bachaye (15:22) asserts that travels in any desert constitute a “Nisayon.”[1]   The biblical commentator then points out that if spending time in the desert in general is by definition a challenging trial, then “walking in the great and awesome desert together with their wives and young children and not having water for three days during the summer, there is no greater test in the entire world.” But if his contention is valid, why does the Tora specifically mention that at Mara the people were tested, when in fact every moment spent in the desert is a test in one form or another? Rabbeinu Bachaye suggests that when they saw the spring at Mara from afar, they had high expectations of replenishing their water supply that had over the three days journey from Egypt just run out. Their deep disappointment upon realizing that the tempting water was in fact undrinkable, sharpened their upset, frustration and desperation, creating a situation by which their collective faith and trust in HaShem could be evaluated and ultimately strengthened by demonstrating how God could easily Alleviate the problem. [2]  Consequently, the commentator suggests that there are two levels of “testing” in the desert: a) simply having to be there over an extended period of time even while in possession of the requisite equipment and supplies, and b) spending time in the desert compounded by worrisome shortages, heat, thirst, and hunger.  By extension, the two subsequent instances in Parshat BeShalach when the term “test/trial” appears, 16:4 and 17:2, 7, involving shortages of food and water, could be similarly understood to be consistent with the acute type of desert “Nisyanot” i.e., b), rather than a).[3]  

A “test” of learning survival techniques.

However, to understand the term “Nisayon” in 15:25 as a general reference to desert hardships, or even a reflection of the sorts of specific needs that anyone facing such a situation has to cope with, independent of the unique context of the particular verse in question appears to be problematic from a methodological point of view. It is difficult to ignore the clear parallelism between the earlier exclusionary adverbial phrase[4]  in the verse “SHAM Sam Lo Chok U’Mishpat” (THERE He Gave Him a Statute and a Law) and its coda, “VeSHAM Nisahu” (and THERE He Tested Him). Apparently, the “Chok U’Mishpat” are part and parcel of the “Nisayon”. RaMBaN’s (15:25) literal and homiletic interpretations regarding the relationship between these elements in the verse are evocative in terms of how much at variance they are from one another. On the one hand, from the “Peshat” (literal meaning) perspective, the commentator suggests that “Statute and Law” have to do with how one is to conduct oneself in the desert, and therefore the test was not simply to see the manner in which the people will react to difficult conditions, but rather to instruct the formerly over-dependent slaves in self-reliant survival techniques and then to see whether they have understood and are able to apply them on their own. Learning the life-saving qualities of certain plants and animals can come in handy when facing starvation or dehydration both now and in the future.

A “test” of learning how to develop a meaningful social contract.

But in addition to simply learning about desert flora and fauna, another area of needed instruction and subsequent testing for the Jews who have just now emerged from Egyptian bondage is the nature of appropriate interpersonal relationships among freemen and freewomen. If they are to ultimately be transformed from a disorganized rabble of individuals who can think of nothing other than their own day-to-day personal survival into a highly functioning nation imbued with civility and humanity, RaMBaN writes,

They are given laws regarding a) how one person is to love the next, b) that the advice and direction of elders are to be heeded, c) the nature of modesty that is to apply to conduct within their individual tents involving women and children, d) the behavior that is to be undertaken with respect to outsiders who may come to the camp in order to engage in commerce, and e) rules governing an encampment so that the Jews will not be like marauders who engage in a wide range of abominations without embarrassment…

RaMBaN cites as a parallel to 15:25 a verse at the end of the book of Yehoshua, where it is stated, (Yehoshua 24:25) “And Yehoshua entered into a covenant with the people on that day and he gave him (the people) a ‘Chok U’Mishpat’ in Shechem.” In contrast to those who wish to interpret Shemot 15:25 as indicating that at least a portion of the Tora laws intended to be given in their entirety at Sinai, are already being revealed at Mara as an introduction to the law code that will be formally offered to the people in a few weeks,[5]  by the end of the book of Yehoshua, this same phraseology cannot be understood in a like manner, since the Tora was given long before, during the era of Moshe’s leadership. RaMBaN further suggests that the verse in Yehoshua may be referring to various pieces of social legislation that are attributed to Moshe’s successor in Bava Kama 80b.

Our Rabbis taught: Yehoshua laid down ten stipulations: a) that cattle be permitted to pasture in privately owned wooded areas (as opposed to planted fields), b) that wood may be gathered by all in privately owned fields, except in a field where fenugreek is growing, c) that shoots from trees be permitted to be cut by all in all places with the exception of those growing out of olive trees, d) that a spring emerging aboveground for the first time may be used by the townspeople, e) that it is permitted to fish with a hook in the Sea of Tiberius provided that no sail is set that would interfere with the navigation of other boats, f) that it is permitted for one to relieve himself at the back of a fence, g) that it is permitted for the public to use paths in private fields until the time when the second rain is expected, h) that it is permitted to use private sidewalks in order to avoid the road-pegs, i) that one who has lost his way in the vineyards be permitted to cut his way out when either going up or coming down, j) that a dead body which anyone finds has the right to acquire the spot where it is found and be buried there.

Consequently, this approach of RaMBaN suggests that in order to ready the Jewish people for developing and adhering to a social contract once they come into Israel, the desert in general, and Mara in particular, serve as a “proving ground” wherein the Jews could become accustomed to functioning as independent citizens, both respecting the rights of others even as they insist upon the privileges due themselves and their families. During their travels in the desert, the laws and customs governing these interactions were modified and refined, until the people conquer the land of Israel and permanently institute these types of rules by which their society is to be governed.

A “test” to learn how to properly approach God.

                But RaMBaN contends that there were spiritual goals as well that could be represented by the terms “Chok U’Mishpat”. The commentator suggests that in addition to learning how to act towards one another, i.e., “Mitzvot Bein Adam VeChaveiro” (Tora, Rabbinic and social Commandments between man and man), the people were being introduced to proper etiquette and procedure in terms of their relating to HaShem, “Mitzvot Bein Adam LaMakom” (Commandments between man and God). “He would Afflict them with desert conditions, and they would have to learn how to respond to starvation and thirst, how to call upon God properly, as opposed to constantly complaining.” Furthermore, the theological symbolism of the manner by which the bitter waters were sweetened was shown and explained to Moshe who in turn was expected to teach the lesson regarding HaShem’s “Hashgacha Pratit” (Divine Intervention) to the people. Midrashim such as Mechilta and Tanchuma on 15:25 claim that the branch that was shown Moshe came from a tree that itself was bitter, and yet when thrown into bitter water, the water counter-intuitively became sweet. Implied is that at least on occasion, even when something attributed to HaShem appears bitter at the outset, and it seems that additional bitterness is intensifying the situation, ultimately things may turn out sweet and palatable. The test then becomes one of seeing whether the people are able to suspend their customary pessimistic expectations of disaster, developed during their years of slavery in Egypt, and when confronted now with a difficult situation, whether they can develop the patience and faith that all will turn out well. At the Sea of Reeds, their dire predictions in 14:10-12 were refuted, and it is expected over time that they build confidence in HaShem’s Concern and Protection. And unfortunately, when repeatedly in Shemot and BaMidbar, the expectation of the Jewish people trusting in God’s Providence and Redemption is not realized in the generation that itself left Egypt, HaShem Decrees that that generation’s children will be given the task of entering and conquering Israel in place of their parents.

A “test” introducing Mitzvot representative of the entire corpus of Tora law.

As for the standard Rabbinical interpretation of “Chok U’Mishpat” found in Sanhedrin 56b, i.e., that the specific Commandments of respecting parents, Shabbat, the Red Heifer, and the need for civil law were given to the Jews at Mara in order to acquaint them with Jewish Tora law, and see whether or not they would embrace these laws joyfully and with enthusiasm, RaMBaN insists that these laws did not become obligatory at this point, but were instead only intended for reflection and optional observance, in the manner that the forefathers were supposed to have observed Mitzvot (see Kiddushin 4:14). Such an understanding of the test therefore is not in terms of the ability to comply with the tenets of Tora laws, but rather how they would be understood, and in turn what would be concluded regarding the Intentions of HaShem Who is Giving them. Such an approach is reminiscent of Kiddushin 31a.

Ulla Rabba gave the following interpretation in the doorway of the Nasi’s residence: What is meant by the verse (Tehillim 138:4) “All of the kings of the earth will acknowledge You HaShem when they hear the Words of Your Mouth”? The WORD of Your Mouth is not said, but rather the WORDS of Your Mouth. At the moment that HaShem Declared, (Shemot 20:2, 3) “I Am the Lord Your God; You shall have no other gods before Me”, the nations of the world said, “For His own Honor He is Demanding.” But when He Said, (Shemot 20:11) “Honor your father and your mother”, they changed their minds and acknowledged the propriety of the initial Commandments.[6]  

Rava said: This lesson is learned from here—(Tehillim 119:160) “The Beginning of Your Words are True”. Does this imply that only the Beginning is True, but not the End? But rather from the End of Your Words, you can recognize that the Beginning is true.

The skepticism regarding HaShem’s Intentions that the Talmud attributes to the nations of the world, in light of how the people repeatedly challenge God’s Authority, could very well have been shared by the Jews themselves. And therefore some of these Commandments are presented early in order to gauge popular reaction as well as approaches for how to best educate the people to accept and enact these Laws.

Who is testing who?

While the test at Mara at first glance seems to be something that HaShem Designed so that the Jews would undergo a type of “training” prior to their entry into the land of Israel, further analysis reveals that according to the Tora, tests and trials are not only understood to emanate from God; while the Jewish people are sometimes on the receiving end, they are also accused by God Himself of having subjecting Him to tests of their own. During the course of the difficulties that arise due to the negative report of the land of Israel presented by ten out of the twelve spies,[7]  God States, (BaMidbar 14:22-23) “For all of the men who have seen My Glory and My Signs that I have Done in Egypt and in the desert, yet have TESTED ME THESE TEN TIMES and have not hearkened to My Voice, surely they will not see the land that I have Sworn to their fathers…” In contrast to RaShBaM and Ibn Ezra, who interpret “Ten Times” as an expression simply connoting numerous times rather than “ten” specific instances, RaShI, assumes the number “ten” is to be taken literally, and cites the Talmud in Erchin 15a which attempts to identify the particular instances to which HaShem is Alluding:[8]

It was taught: R. Yehuda said: With ten trials did our forefathers test the Holy One Blessed Be He—a) two at the sea, b) two because of water, c) two because of manna, d) two because of the quails, e) one in connection with the Golden Calf, and f) one in the wilderness of Paran.

a) “Two at the sea”—one at the going down, and the other at the coming up. At the going down: (Shemot 14:11) “Because there are not sufficient graves in Egypt you have taken us to die in the desert?” At the going up…for Rabba bar Mari said, “It is written (Tehillim 106:7) ‘But they were rebellious at the sea, even at the Sea of Reeds; nevertheless He Saved them for His Name’s Sake.’ This teaches that Israel was rebellious at that very hour, saying, ‘Just as we go up from this side, so will the Egyptians go up from the other side’…

b) “Two because of water”—one at Mara and one at Refidim. At Mara it is written: (Shemot 15:23) “And when they came to Mara, they could not drink.” And it is written: (15:24) “And the people murmured against Moshe.” At Refidim it is written: (17:1) “And the people encamped at Refidim and there was no water to drink.” And it is also written: (17:2) “Wherefore the people strove with Moshe.”

c) “Two because of manna”—[9] (16:27) “And it was the Seventh day, and some people went out to gather, and they did not find.”[10] (16:20) “But they did not listen to Moshe, but some of the people left the Manna until the morning, and it bred worms and stank…”

d) “Two because of the quails”—of the first and second quails. Of the first: (Shemot 16:3) “When we sat by the fleshpots…” Of the second: (BaMidbar 11:4) “And the mixed multitude that was among them…”

e) “The Golden Calf”—as it happened (see Shemot 32:1 ff.)

f) “The wilderness of Paran”—as it happened (see BaMidbar 13-14.)

                It is notable that among the ten events that are categorized as tests of God by the Jewish people cited in Erchin, the four[11]  that stem from Parshat BeShalach can simultaneously be viewed as tests emanating from HaShem to evaluate the people’s spiritual state. And although the actual term “Nisayon” is not used by the Tora with respect to the other six occasions cited by the Talmud, it is not difficult to recognize their dual natures as well, i.e., these situations are both tests by and of God. While God was Ready to Save the Jews at the Sea despite the skepticism of some, as was mentioned above, He did not immediately Make it clear how this was going to take place, and considerable faith is required of the people before the splitting of the Sea actually transpires—see e.g., Sota 37a. HaShem not only positively responds to the request for meat, but He also evaluates and ultimately punishes those who are improperly insistent upon obtaining it (see BaMidbar 11). The Golden Calf reflects a major shortcoming on the part of the people; yet Rabbinic sources and commentaries, e.g., RaShI on Shemot 32:31 and Keli Yakar on 15:22 based upon Berachot 32a suggest that ordering the Jewish people to despoil Egypt before they left (Shemot 12:36) as well as giving them the opportunity to collect the jewels from the drowned Egyptian forces at the Sea of Reeds (see Mechilta on 15:22) provided these newly freed slaves with a powerful temptation to use the precious metals that they had acquired for illegal idolatrous purposes. Finally with respect to the spies, while in retrospect Moshe admits in Devarim 1:22-23 that the impetus to send the delegation originated with the people, the initial account in BaMidbar 13:2 gives the impression that HaShem at least Authorized the spy mission, if He did not out and out Command Moshe to send the representatives of the tribes to scout out the land of Israel.

The double-edged sword of a test.

In order to place someone in a situation where he will be tested, one runs the risk that the tables will be turned. Instead of the one being tested demonstrating mastery, self-control and competence, he may lash out at the examiner, clearly evidencing a lack of preparedness and even comprehension of the task at hand and the skill set required for meeting the challenges being posed. The Jewish people have certainly experienced their share of “Nisyanot” throughout their history, as well as having presented a number of their own challenges to HaShem. Let us hope that we can learn from our challenges, go thereby from “Chayil L’Chayil” (from strength to strength), to live up to HaShem’s Expectations of us individually, communally and nationally.


[1]  The challenges inherent in spending time in the desert is readily apparent from Berachot 54b, where, based upon Tehillim 107:4-9, “Holchei Midbarot” (those journeying in deserts) is one of the four categories of individuals who are required to publicly acknowledge their miraculous survival by means of God’s Divine Oversight.

[2] While the newly freed slaves can be expected to not be experienced and overly confident in terms of God’s Involvement with them due to their long years of suffering and servitude, when HaShem demonstrates that He will Produce water and food for them, these specific memories can serve as benchmarks for the future development of newfound trust and faith.

[3] When the term “Nisayon” is used in Devarim, for the most part it again is associated with the specific events in Shemot where the term first appeared. Devarim 6:16 cites the paradigm of “Massa”, the place where the second dispute over water occurs in Shemot 17. Devarim 8:16 invokes the past problems with the Manna, that originally became an issue in Shemot 16, although it rears its head again in BaMidbar 11:6-9 and 21:5. The only other instance where the term “Nisayon” is invoked by HaShem in Devarim, is in order to account for why false prophets sometimes can perform seemingly miraculous signs, i.e., in order for HaShem to be Able to test the Jewish people as to the extent of their exclusive love for Him and His Mitzvot. Since the events recorded in the book of Shemot take place while no one but Moshe can claim to be HaShem’s Prophet—even Korach challenged the designation of Aharon as Kohen Gadol, but not that of Moshe as the conduit of God’s Will to the people (see BaMidbar 16:10)—it is not remarkable that no paradigm for such a challenge is to be found in Shemot, in contrast to demands for water and food.

[4] The term “Sham” (there) suggests that an event took place in a specific locale to the exclusion of anywhere else.

[5] From the time of the Exodus from Egypt until the receiving of the Tora that is commemorated by the festival of Shavuot, seven weeks elapsed (VaYikra 23:15). The splitting of the Sea took place on the seventh day following the Jews’ fleeing Egypt (see e.g., RaShI on Shemot 14:5). And only three days more pass (15:22) before the test of Mara leaving about five and a half weeks until the giving of the Tora.

[6] Perhaps it is more than coincidence that Respecting Parents is one of the Commandments given at Mara in light of the passage in Kiddushin that attributes to this Mitzva the basis for justifying those Commandments leading up to it.

[7] Originally twelve, Kalev and Yehoshua refused to give a negative report.

[8] Another Rabbinic source that takes literally the Tora’s contention in BaMidbar that there were specifically ten trials in the desert is Avot 5:4 which focuses upon the association of the number ten and events during and following the Exodus—“Ten miracles were performed on behalf of our Forefathers in Egypt, and ten at the Sea. Ten plagues God Brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the Sea. Ten trials did our Forefathers try God, Blessed be He, in the desert, as it is said (BaMidbar 14) ‘And they tested Me these ten times and they did not hearken to My Voice’”. Commentators on the Mishna such as Tosafot Yom Tov, strive to identify precisely which ten trials are being referenced, despite the listing in Erechin.

[9] The Talmud paraphrases the verse in 16:29 which records what Moshe says to the people AFTER they have already gone out to search for manna on Shabbat. This verse does not demonstrate how the people tried God, but rather what the Divine Response to the trial was, i.e., a reiteration of the rules applying to Manna gathering on the Seventh Day. 16:27 is a more appropriate reflection of the non-compliance on the part of the people. Similarly, with regard to the leaving over of the Manna, the Talmud cites 16:19 in which the instructions given by Moshe for the people not to leave the Manna over are recorded. However, if one wishes to illustrate how the people defied Moshe’s directive, the next verse, 16:20, has to be accessed. If all that one pays attention to is the order that was given, why should it be assumed that it was not carried out? Only in combination with the verse that describes the result can it be said that this constitutes a test of God by the people. In fact, the two verses cited by Erchin with respect to the Manna are examples of God Testing the people, rather than vice versa!

[10] Told in 23-26 that a double portion would fall on Erev Shabbat and that no Manna would be in the fields on Shabbat itself, thereby precluding the necessity for going out to gather manna on Shabbat.

[11] It could be contested that the challenges associated with the Manna cited by the Talmud have more to do with how and when it is to be gathered, rather than the untoward demands for food in the first place. However, it could be countered that the reason for the people’s impatience with respect to not collecting Manna on Shabbat and attempting to save some from one weekday to the next, was due to the same lack of faith in HaShem that caused them to challenge whether He would Give them food in the first place.

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