By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva
And he cried unto God and God showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them. (Shemot 15:25)
The Jewish people receive some form of law at Marah prior to the grand revelation at Sinai but the biblical account does not relate what that law includes. The gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) suggests that the Jews received the commandments of dinim (monetary law), Shabbat, and honoring parents. Support for including the last two comes from the account of asseret hadibrot in Devarim 5 where the Torah says “as I commanded you” in reference to Shabbat and kibbud av va’em. From the reference to a previous command, the gemara infers that these two mitzvot were given at Marah during the episode recounted in Shemot 15.
Perhaps another motivation fueling the gemara was an assumption that this early list of commandments should consist of mitzvot fundamental to religious life. Both Shabbat and honoring parents certainly qualify; therefore, it seems reasonable that they were the commandments at Marah.
Rashi follows the gemara in including both Shabbat and dinim; he differs by including the red heifer as the third mitzva. R. Baruch Epstein (Torah Temima) claims that this reflects a copyist error rather than the authentic view of Rashi. Perhaps Rashi wrote the acronym for honoring parents (kaf and aleph), a scribe mistakenly converted the kaf into a similar looking peh, and the next scribe spelled it out as para aduma. R. Epstein’s speculation, though clever, requires more evidence than he provides. In fact, we can explain why Rashi introduces the red heifer as a possibility. The verse uses the term “chok” and the red heifer represents the quintessential chok. Furthermore, introducing a commandment whose reason is difficult to comprehend helps convey that halachic observance also involves adhering to mitzvot even when a person does not understand the reason behind them. Hashem wanted the people to hear this important message at an early stage.
Ramban wonders why, according to Rashi, the Torah does not explicitly mention these commandments just as it enumerates specific mitzvot in Shemot 12. He provides an alternative explanation that the “statues and ordinances” refer to issues of basic human decency such as loving neighbors, listening to the counsel of the elderly, respecting privacy, relating to outsiders in a peaceful manner, and acting with restraint even in wartime. This reflects the basic needs of the nascent Jewish nation. According to Ramban, we cannot embark on our grand mission of religious life without a fundamental grounding in human decency. This parallels Ramban’s reading of the Noahide law of dinim. The Noahide court system does not merely enforce the other six Noahide laws; rather, it demands a more widespread attempt to create an equitable monetary and social system. For Ramban, all religious communal life begins with social institutions which promote justice and benevolence.