Parshas Beshalach – The true purpose of Hashem’s laws

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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

We have been born as a nation in last weeks פרשה, and our journey begins in this week’s פרשה. It’s interesting to read Moshe’s first instruction to us outside of Egypt, while trying to imagine what it must have been like for the people. Moshe has been a larger than life figure till now, speaking to Pharaoh, bringing plague after plague to Egypt, and now it’s just the nation and him. What’s the first thing Hashem has him tell the people? דבר אל בני ישראל וישבו ויחנו לפני פי החירות בין מגדל ובין הים לפני בעל צפון, speak to the Jewish people and return, make a U-turn to head back to Mitzrayim. Camp in front of פיתום the city which you built with your blood sweat and tears, which you just left yesterday. You’ll be facing בעל צפון, the one Egyptian god which survived all the מכות, which Hashem allowed to happen as a potential pitfall that people might think that the Egyptian god is really all-powerful. How difficult must that night have been for the people? And amazingly the Torah says ויעשו כן, the people followed right along, without any doubts or questions.

After we walk through the ים סוף, the trouble begins. The people complain that we’ve placed all our trust in you Moshe, and our basic needs aren’t being met, we need food and water. And the underlying theme of what follows the rest of the פרשה is Hashem testing the people and Moshe trying to show them that it is Hashem who took them out and Hashem who will be tending to all their needs. Let’s explore part of that.

They get to a place called מרה and the water is bitter. Moshe davens to Hashem and Hashem sends down a tree that Moshe puts in the water which makes it sweet, and the people receive 3 laws there for them to be busy with, like the פסוק says שם שם לו חק ומשפט, which Rashi says were Shabbos, דינים, and פרה אדומה. These 3 מצות represent 3 categories of מצות, 1- דינים being a completely logical commandment and necessary system for any society to exist. This is one of the mitzvos that even the non-Jews have, since it’s importance is universal, and any advanced society implements it on their own, almost regardless of religion. 2- Shabbos is a mitzva that may seem logical, that people need a break every so often, and we are not hardwired to work 24/7, but that’s not what Shabbos is. The logical explanation of Shabbos is an illusion, and what we really do on Shabbos is connect back to our Creator by imitating Him and realizing that everything that happens all week long comes from Him. This mitzva has an illusionary reason and a true reason, but the true reason is something we can understand and wrap our heads around. 3- פרה אדומה is the quintessential example of a mitzva that we have no true understanding about. We do it simply because God said to, even though we don’t understand.

The people gathered there in מרה had all been born into slavery, and they had been abused by authority and by laws. They needed to have a paradigm shift of what authority was and what the function of commandments were. Hashem loved them and wanted a relationship with them, but the path to that relationship is through His laws. They needed a bite size portion of those laws before they could be sent off to הר סיני to accept the entire Torah, so they get one of each category.

Then we get to פרשת המן where study time is over, it’s time for an action test. Here Hashem says למען אנסנו הילך בתורתי אם לא, [I will make bread rain down] so that I can test the people to see if they will be able to keep my Torah or not. The people need food and Hashem tells Moshe that it is going to rain bread for the people every day, but there are 3 rules attached to this, 1- you can only take enough food to feed each person under your responsibility for one day, 2- you can’t leave anything over until tomorrow, and 3- on Friday a double portion will come down and you will need to leave over until Shabbos since nothing will fall on Shabbos. What is interesting is that Moshe gives the people as little details as possible. In the beginning, all they know is that in the morning you will have your answer, they don’t know what to expect or look for, no mention of any rules, and when they do see it, they have no clue what it is. Then Moshe pipes up and says, this is the bread that Hashem gave you to eat, and by the way you can only take one עומר per person. And only after the people go out and collect the מן, does Moshe tell them, you can’t leave anything over. The people are doing this Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, all the way till Friday, and then, to their shock on Friday morning they find double the מן on the ground! The leaders come running to Moshe and he says, oh yes, that’s what Hashem said tomorrow is a holy Shabbos, prepare what you can today and leave a portion over until tomorrow, because tomorrow it will not fall.

Why did Moshe not just give them the whole story up front? Why all the secrecy? Also, initially the people fail commandments 2 and 3, people leave over to the next morning and they also go out to try and collect on Shabbos. If this is a test to see if we can keep the Torah or not, looks like we failed!

I think a possible answer might be that the three commandments we got with the מן mirror the 3 laws that we got in מרה. 1- only collecting for one day at a time is logical and matches up with דינים. In those days they didn’t have a preservation system, so it would be logical to only collect one day’s worth at a shot. 2- not to leave over until tomorrow might seem logical since if you only collected the amount that everyone needs, then they should all eat what they need to, so they have energy for today. But in reality, the point of this commandment was as a reminder and test that we are meant to rely on Hashem and to trust that there will be מן again tomorrow morning. This mitzva parallels to Shabbos. 3- for 5 days the people are doing as they are told, and then suddenly on the 6th day, the opposite happens, and they are told to break the laws that they have been trying to keep until now. On the 6th day you must take enough for two days, and you must leave over for tomorrow, since tomorrow it won’t come down. Just when you thought you had the system figured out, you get a topsy-turvy scenario which is meant to show us that Hashem is 100% in charge, and He knows the best system and what is best for us. This corresponds to פרה אדומה. This was the all-encompassing test that the people needed to endure. They had gotten the 3 categories of laws in מרה to study, but could they practice them when it was their sustenance that they were dealing with?

Moshe knew that this was a test for the people, so he only told them what they needed to know in the moment, and they were expected to follow along with faith and trust. Almost as though Hashem was pushing them to bring out their full potential. They had followed into the desert, and they turned around to face Egypt again when it didn’t make sense, Hashem was saying, I know you can do this, I know you can keep giving Me the gift of trust. However, while this is all true, there was the possibility of us failing, which ended up happening, albeit on a small scale. For that reason, Hashem put “training wheels” as Rabbi Fohrman calls them, on these מצות. You want to try to leave over? It’ll spoil. You go to look for מן on Shabbos? It isn’t there. Hashem knew we might fail so He set up a failsafe system, so we wouldn’t need to be punished if that happened. And at the same time, when we did fail, the first time Moshe got upset and the second time Hashem got upset, yet here we still are today, the Jewish people didn’t get dumped on the side of the road somewhere between אילם and סיני. I think the message there is that Hashem doesn’t need us to be perfect, nor does He expect up to be. All He wants is us to give Him the gift of trust and try our best.

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