Miracles and Mitzvot at Marah



Mitzvot at Marah?

After the splitting of the Sea, the Children of Israel travel for three days in the wilderness without finding water. Finally, they arrive at Marah, only to discover that the water there was bitter and not potable. The nation complains to Moshe who, in turn, cries out to Hashem and is instructed to throw a tree (or wood) into the waters to sweeten them. The text reads as follows:


(כה) וַיִּצְעַק אֶל ה' וַיּוֹרֵהוּ ה' עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הַמַּיִם וַֽיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ. (כו) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְוֺתָיו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כׇּל חֻקָּיו כׇּל הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם לֹא אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי ה' רֹפְאֶךָ. (שמות ט"ו:כ"ה-כ"ו)

(15) And he cried to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a tree, and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet; there He made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there He tested them. (16) And He said: "If you will diligently heed the voice of Hashem your God, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will listen to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, all of the diseases which I have put on the Egyptians I will not put on you, for I am Hashem who heals you." (Shemot 15:25-26)

These verses, and particularly the cryptic phrase "שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ" in which almost every word is ambiguous, raise several questions:

  • What is the nature of this "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט"? Who is placing what in front of whom and why?
  • What does the verb "נִסָּהוּ" mean? Who is performing this action to whom and why, and what is its relationship to the "אֲנַסֶּנּוּ" which follows a few verses later in 16:4?
  • What is the connection between the sweetening of the waters at Marah and the epilogue to the story which speaks of listening to the commandments of Hashem?
  • Did the nation receive any mitzvot before arriving at Mt. Sinai? If so, which ones, and why does the Torah not identify them by name?

The Miracle and the Message

The story of Marah raises additional issues that relate to the ways of Divine providence and the challenges faced by an emerging nation:

  • Why were the Israelites led into a situation where they would have no water for many days? Was this the only route the nation could have taken?
  • Were the waters at Marah naturally bitter or did Hashem make them that way?
  • What were the most pressing physical and spiritual needs of the new nation, and what methods did Hashem use to address them at Marah?