| Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Yitro Exodus 18:1-20:23
Efrat, Israel - Undoubtedly, the Revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai is the most momentous event in the history of the Jewish people; the Do's and Don'ts revealed by the Almighty Himself formed and informed the conscience of Israel and the world, and defined both our national identity as well as our universal mission.
But if the events at Mount Sinai loom so large in Jewish history why were the lightning and thunder of the Revelation upstaged in advance? In last week's Torah reading of Beshalach, right after the splitting of the Red Sea which took place one week after the exodus and six weeks prior to the Sinai Revelation, Moses leads the Israelites to Marah where "He (G-d) made for them a statute and an ordinance (chok v'mishpat)." (Exodus 15:25).
This obviously refers to some Divine commandment of laws, which Rashi (ad loc) explains as "several sections of the Torah : the Sabbath, the Red Heifer, (or Honoring one's Parents according to an alternate version) and the Civil Laws of Interpersonal Relationships." Rashi's source is the Talmud, (B.T. Sanhedrin 56b), where it turns out that the Sages maintain that not only were these three pillars of the Law given at Marah, but they also add the seven Noahide Laws of Morality, - for a total of ten. Apparently the Sages seem to be drawing a fascinating parallel: ten commandments at Marah and the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Why not wait another five and one-half weeks, and give all of the Commandments at the same time? I believe that, when studied in context, the commands at Marah serve as an excellent introduction to the Revelation at Sinai - and indeed help us to understand its eternal significance.
Immediately after the splitting of the Red Sea, the Israelites travel for three days in the desert without water. Then, when they finally do reach water, it turns out to be bitter, undrinkable (Hence the name of the place, Marah, which means bitter'). Despite the miracles of the plagues - which began with the waters of the Nile turning to blood - and the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, which also involved water, the Israelites nevertheless complain at the lack of potable water.
"And the nation grumbled against Moses, saying what shall we drink?'" (Exodus 15:24).
At this point, the text becomes almost inexplicable:
"And Moses cried out to the Lord; And the Lord instructed him (Vayoraihu) regarding a tree, threw it (the tree) in the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance (15:25)."What kind of objects of magical potions and make-believe are being thrust upon us?
If we examine the word Vayoraihu we discover that it has the same root as Torah, which means to instruct or direct. Hence, the translation of Targum Onkelos is v'alfai,' a word more connected to teaching' or study.' The Rashbam also looks at the root of vayoraihu' and translates it to mean yoru b'mishpatecha' -teaching or instructing (Divine) laws. Thus G-d doesn't show Moses a tree as much as He teaches Moses the nature of this tree, or alternatively, G-d shows Moses a tree of teaching.'
Clearly, the tree of sweetening the waters is a symbolic reference to Torah as well as to perfection. Our Torah is Biblically and liturgically referred to as a "tree of life":
"It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who uphold it are content." (Proverbs 3:18)And, it is the "tree of life" in the Garden of Eden to which we yearn to return. The Torah is the formula by which the bitter waters of a transitory existence can be transformed into the sweet waters of eternal life. Torah will sweeten the waters of the world by returning us to Eden, peace and perfection, when
"Knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover the seas" (Isaiah 11:9)There is an even deeper message in this passage. After all, how could the Israelites have railed against Moses only three days after they sang at the Sea, one of the most exalted moments in the history of our people?
"Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto G-d, I will sing unto G-d for He is gloriously sublimeG-d is my might and hymn, and He is become my salvation, He is my G-d, and I will glorify Him, my father's G-d, and I will exalt Him (Exodus 15:1-19)."Nothing in the Torah compares with the ecstatic emotions of faith expressed in these words - apparently totally forgotten in only three days of thirst!
A well-known Midrash illustrates the enormous spiritual visions beheld at the splitting of the Red Sea by pointing out that the lowliest maid-servant at the Sea had a deeper prophetic insight than even the great visionary Ezekiel Ben Buzi! That may be true, wryly and brilliantly pointed out the Kotzker Rebbe, but the day after the miracle at the sea, the serving -girl still remained a servant and Ezekiel was still a prophet. In other words, the super-sound effects of the miracles quickly evaporate and dissipate. Steven Spielberg productions, even if effectuated by G-d Himself, have little staying power. Momentous inspirations of the moment last but a moment; it is only the painstaking, perspiration - soaked lessons and disciplines which ultimately and intimately bring about lasting personality changes.
This was the lesson which the Almighty taught Elijah after the prophet brought about a Divine Revelation at Mount Carmel during which 600,000 Israelites cried out: The Lord He is G-d' - but nevertheless the very next day the false prophets of Baal continued to flourish. Elijah travels forty days and forty nights to arrive at Horeb - the place of the Divine Revelation, Mount Sinai - and receives a personal message from the Lord: wind, but G-d is not in the wind; rushing noise, but G-d is not in the rushing wind; fire, but G-d is not in the fire. A still small voice, - the still small voice of inner discipline, of outer kindness, of law and love, of study and prayer - and in that still small voice is G-d to be found. (Kings 1,19)
Hence, in last week's reading the Torah describes how, only three days after the miracle at the Sea and the exalted singing of faith, the Jews bitterly complain against Moses for the lack of proper drinking water. G-d teaches them that a yet unredeemed world is filled with bitter waters; these can only be sweetened not by miraculous and momentous phenomena but rather by diligent and dedicated practice and study of Divine Law and Love. It is the Torah, our tree of life, which has the capacity to sweeten the Torah and perfect society to Eden regained. At Mara, the place of bitter waters and ungrateful complaints, this lesson was learned. Therefore at Mara the initial three, or ten, statutes and ordinances were given to the Israelites, a necessary introduction to the much broader Revelation at Sinai which is to come in five and one-half weeks.
And so, as the sequence at Marah draws to a close, Moses declares:
"If you will diligently hearken to the voice of G-d, your Lord, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I have put upon the Egyptians, for I am the Lord G-d who heals you " (Exodus 15:26).In case there is any doubt about the deeper connection between the bitter waters and the tree of Torah,' the final words describe how the Israelites come to
"Eilim, where there were twelve springs of water, and seventy date palm trees, and they encamped there by the waters " (Exodus15:27). It's very difficult to encounter these numbers without the eternal Jewish motifs springing to the mind, the pattern of the twelve tribes and the seventy Sages of Israel as well as the seventy nations of the world. What the Torah is telling us is very simple: if we actively engage our lives with the Torah's teaching, we will see how bitterness will be transformed into the ultimate mission of redemption to the 70 nations of the world, via the twelve tribes of Israel and the seventy sages of the Sanhedrin.
What happened at Mara properly prepares us for the Revelation at Sinai, the message that it is not amazing historical occurrences, but it is rather commitment to Divine Law which transforms people and redeems society.