The once bitter, now sweet, waters of Marah aren’t just a place for the Hebrews to refresh their water barrels after finally freeing themselves from the terror of slavery. They’re where they fill their souls with the lessons of Judaism.
They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah.Exodus 15: 23-26
The people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet. There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.
And He said, If you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and you do what is proper in His eyes, and you listen closely to His commandments and observe all His statutes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the Lord, heal you.
God saved the Hebrews from the Egyptian slavers not because they were practicing Jews, but for their potential. The first part of their journey was to leave Egypt and, in crossing the Red Sea, to forever close the door to returning or being captured. Now they were free.
Marah is their first real stop after leaving the shores of the sea. One that transforms them from a group of people thirsty for water to a People thirsty for knowledge.
The Gemara discusses the second of Ezra’s ordinances: And that they should read the Torah on every Monday and Thursday. The Gemara asks: Did Ezra institute this practice? But it was instituted from the beginning, i.e., long before his time. As it is taught in a baraita with regard to the verse: “And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water” (Exodus 15:22). Those who interpret verses metaphorically said that water here is referring to nothing other than Torah, as it is stated metaphorically, concerning those who desire wisdom: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water” (Isaiah 55:1).Talmud Bava Kannah 82a
They camped at Marah and started classes. The first formal introduction to being a Jew. But what did they teach? What courses did they need to prepare themselves for the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai a few weeks later?
The Gemara asks with regard to the list of the Noahide mitzvot [these are rules for “descendants of Noah” of which Jews are a subset; Jews also have additional rules]: Were the descendants of Noah commanded to establish courts of judgment? But isn’t it taught in a baraita: The Jewish people were commanded to observe ten mitzvot when they were in Marah: Seven that the descendants of Noah accepted upon themselves, and God added to them the following mitzvot: Judgment, and Shabbat, and honoring one’s father and mother.Talmud Sanhedrin 56b
Talmud Sanhedrin 56b goes on to discuss the details of “judgment.” Not mere establishment of a court system which “is a Noahide mitzva” (though some dispute that), but some of the details that created a Jewish system of judgment. Some suggestions are: the number of judges, the number of witnesses, additional fines on the guilty party, the type of punishment.
This is similar to other writings:
“There He made for them statute and judgment”: “statute” — Sabbath; “judgment” — honoring of father and mother. R. Elazar Hamodai says: “statute” — illicit relations, viz. (Leviticus 18:30) “not to do according to the statutes of the abominations that were done before you.” “judgment” — the laws of ravishment, penalties, and injuries. “and there nisahu”: He elevated them to greatness, as in (II Kings 25:27) “Evil Merodach … elevated (“nasa”) Yehoyachin, etc.”, and (Numbers 4:22) “Elevate (“nasso”) the sons of Gershon.”…There the L rd tried Israel.Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:25
Rashi cites both of the above texts but comes to a very different conclusion.
There He gave them: In Marah, He gave them some sections of the Torah so that they would busy themselves with them, namely [they were given the laws governing] the Sabbath, the red cow, and laws of jurisprudence. — [from Mechilta and Sanh. 56b]Rashi commentary on Exodus 15:25
Where does the Red Heifer (aka red cow) come into this? Dr. Ephraim Yitzhaki of Bar-Ilan University claims it’s an error. Either born of a scribal mistake or an overstep by Rashi, as no other sages include the Red Heifer in their list of things taught at Marah.
Interpretation of Teachings:
The majority of sources state that at Marah the Hebrews were taught three basic things they were not already familiar with:
- Details of their justice system (as a people they could have their own and not be subject to Pharaoh’s decrees).
- Honoring their mother and father (including rules for family relationships).
- Shabbat (a day for rest which, as slaves, was mere fantasy, but now would be part of their lives going forward).
- “Chok and Mishpat” – From Logic to Metalogic Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), Rabbi Ari Kahn, AISH.
- Laws: Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), Rabbi Ari Kahn, AISH.
- Parah at Marah: a Red Herring? Dr. Ephraim Yitzhaki, Bar-Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center.
- Torah Like Water, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, My Jewish Learning.