Parshas B'Shalach - A Watershed Event

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 01/25/18

After experiencing perhaps the greatest miracle of all time the Children of Israel are at a loss for the most basic of needs, water. After being prodded by Moshe to refrain from scooping up the booty that was scattered along the shoreline and to proceed to travel towards the desert, they begin searching for water. Three days lapse and they finally arrive at Marah where they discover that although there is an abundance of water it is too bitter to drink. They complain to Moshe who cries out to G-d, Who then instructs him to take some bitter wood and cast it into the water, miraculously sweetening it.

The Talmud reveals that what lead them to complain wasn’t simply their desperation for water. Water here refers to ‘Torah’, the ultimate life force. They were bereft from Torah and that deficiency is what compelled them to rebel. The prophets among them immediately instituted that one may never go without Torah for three days at a time and they established the practice to read the Torah publicly every Monday, Thursday and on Shabbos, thus assuring that three days will never lapse without some exposure to Torah.

The verse indeed states that G-d after sweetening the water ‘He established for the nation a decree and an ordinance’. This we are taught refers to several commandments they were now instructed in so as שיתעסקו בם, they shall occupy themselves with.(רש"י)

Is that it? If they had only been preoccupied with thoughts of Torah they wouldn’t have thirsted for water? How does the triple weekly reading from the Torah placate our thirst for water? Are the few verses we read so inspiring that it equips us for the next three days with enough spiritual nourishment to keep us at bay?

There is one more verse Moshe conveyed in the name of G-d to conclude the lesson in this test of their faith they endured at Marah.

ויאמר אם שמוע תשמע לקול ד' אלקיך והישר בעיניו תעשה והאזנת למצותיו ושמרת כל חקיו כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצרים לא אשים עליך כי אני ד' רפאך (שמות טו כו), If you hearken diligently to the voice of G-d, your lord, and do what is just in His eyes, give ear to his commandments and observe all His decrees, then any disease that I placed in Egypt, I will not bring upon you, for I am G-d, your healer.

Although this verse seems to echo a simple sentiment: listen and adhere to the commandments and all will be good, there seems to be a subtle nuance that goes beyond just successful performance. The Ibn Ezra notes that when the verse refers here to תשמע לקול ד', to listen to voice of G-d, it intimates, more importantly, understanding it as well. The phrase used in this verse והאזנת למצותיו, to ‘give ear’ to the commandments is equally unusual. Does one ‘listen’ to the ‘commandments’, or rather to the one who commands them?

Perhaps the underlying message is that going beyond perfunctory observance one must realize that the full complement of mitzvos aren’t merely directions but more significantly give us insight into the mindset of G-d as it were. When one ‘understands’ that, one can then expand to encompass all areas of life that are not directly governed by the details of any given law and apply it to every act, deed and thought in expressing the will of G-d.

The public reading of Torah is not merely an opportunity to teach Torah, it is a reenactment of the giving of the Torah itself. The reason for the custom to have three people standing at the Bimah is so we have a representation of, G-d, the lawgiver; Moshe, the agent; the people who received its message.(לבוש)

We must realize that G-d constantly ‘speaks’ to us, the process of the giving of the Torah is a continuum. It is for that reason we state in the blessing over the Torah,, how G-d is the נותן התורה, the ‘Giver’, in the present tense.

Every moment of our existence is to be inspired by His word. It is up to us to ‘hearken’ to that voice, that speaks to us through the words of His holy Torah.

When they departed the sea thy hadn’t yet fathomed this intimate relationship. Through the encounters and challenges of life, man is to discover His presence, listening to His voice and infusing our every action in that spirit.

The first blessing we recite over Torah is that of לעסוק בדברי תורה, to engross ourselves in the words of Torah. The word עסק also alludes to עסקא, loosely translated as business. Perhaps the notion we seek to accent in this blessing is that every engagement in life should be suffused by the words and spirit of Torah. Even as we engage in the mundane aspects of life nevertheless how we respond, how we act should always express that, as the verse at Marah accents, ‘that which is just in His eyes’.

They too were given several fundamental principles and commandments, so that they may, יתעסקו, preoccupy themselves with the spirit of Torah.

The Ramban explains that the term used here at Marah to describe G-d establishing for them חק ומשפט, more specifically translates as ‘structure and civility’ in their lives, intimating a much more expansive objective, that of their developing meaningful and moral lives, sensitive to their families, friends and neighbors.

It is only when we fathom the full scope of life in the context of the Word of G-d that we begin to understand the ultimate purpose of Torah.

This episode at Marah was indeed a ‘watershed’ event that would define the revelation at Sinai and its purpose for all of time.

May we be ever conscious of the constant dialogue we are privileged to have with the Giver of the Torah and may we illuminate all that we do in that brilliant light.


צבי יהודה טייכמאן