Our front garden was recently redone, as it was overgrown with weeds and it needed to be entirely torn out and replaced. The young plants are mostly thriving, although they still appear sparse until they mature some more and fill the empty space. During a conversation an acquaintance commented on the garden, noting that it seemed to be doing very well. I concurred, and remarked that we are now waging a war against the weeds, fighting to keep them at bay. A hobbyist in agriculture, my acquaintance laughed, explaining that this was a battle I could not win. He elaborated, pointing out that wherever the ground is exposed to sunlight weeds will grow in. Not all hope was lost however. He explained that the plants would soon grow larger, covering the soil with their shade. At that point weeds would have a harder time taking hold and the garden would become manageable.
The seed of this idea germinated within, and I realized it reflects a prominent theme in our tradition of character development. When soil is not utilized for something positive, a negative force will fill the vacuum. This is true in every context. It is well known that an uninhabited house will decay more quickly than a home in which people live. Any potential not used for something positive will be utilized by the negative. When the promise is stated in the Torah that the children of Israel will inhabit the Promised Land, the Torah states that this will not happen suddenly, but gradually. “Little by little I shall drive them from before you, until you multiply and will inhabit [all] the land.” Exodus 23:30) The commentaries explain the danger of coming into a sudden inheritance is that the nation will not immediately have the numbers to fill the land. Standing empty and unused, the land will attract unwanted intruders, filling with wild beasts. Instead, a gradual replacement will occur, with the indigenous population driven out only as the people expand and are prepared to occupy more space.
Following the crossing of the sea the children of Israel camped at Marah. “And they came to Marah but they could not drink water at marah, for [the waters] were bitter. Therefore they called its name Marah.” (Exodus 15:23) The people complained and the water was sweetened when Moses threw in a tree branch at God’s instructions. The verse concludes with the words: “…there (at Marah) He established for [Israel] law and judgment, and there He tested [Israel].”
Rashi cites the Midrash, explaining that while the people were encamped at Marah some laws of the Torah were transmitted to them. Three laws specifically were taught there: The laws of Shabbat, the laws of the red heifer, and the concept of judicial courts, three different types. Shabbat represents the Mitzvot of testament, the legal system represents logical rules, while the red heifer is an example of a law without an apparent explanation.
A colleague notes that the Babylonian Talmud in the tractate Sanhedrin (56b) cites a slightly different version. According to the Talmud the laws taught at Marah were Shabbat, honoring one’s parents, and establishing court systems. Why were these specific laws transmitted at this time? What significance do these laws have to particular circumstances of the people of Israel?
The people had just shed the yoke of slavery. With no taskmasters shouting orders and no whips cracking at their backs the people were exposed soil, fertile ground open to new growth. The overgrown weeds stifling their potential had been ripped out, but that overgrowth had to be replaced with a positive use of space or the weeds would begin to creep in. The episode at Marah illustrated the urgency of this. Only three days earlier the people had witnessed some of the greatest and most incredible miracles at the Sea of Reeds. Now they were despairing by the bitterness of the water, complaining that they had nothing to drink. It was crucial at this time that the vacuum be filled by channeled and directed authority.
The people felt insecure, lacking boundaries and limits. In order to feel safe they need such bounds imposed by an authority. There are three types of authority and these are addressed by the three laws respectively. Shabbat reflects the absolute authority of God over the world and nature. The people had to internalize that they were safe in God’s Hands and the laws of Shabbat would help to cement this notion.
The legal system places the upholding and execution of the law into the hands of courts to oversee that justice is carried out, so that society is not anarchical. The people needed to have the sense of security in their social environment as well as their perception of nature, and the implementation of a justice system was necessary at this stage.
Finally, the family unit, the basic intimate structure in which each person resides, required an established authority to fill that void. The Mitzvah of honoring parents is not simply an expression of gratitude toward one’s parents, it creates a hierarchy in the home, establishing the authority necessary to replace the yoke of Egyptian slavery.
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