“The Small ‘Stuff’ is not Always Small”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, features the majestic story of the People of Israel crossing the Red Sea, and the great salvation of Israel from the Egyptians at the hands of the Al-mighty.

The ancient Israelites, who were on a spiritual high as they crossed through the sea on dry land, cry out to G-d (Exodus 15:11), מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם השׁם, Who is like You, L-rd, among the mighty? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, inspiring in praises, doer of wonders?

The women, too, led by Miriam and accompanied by drums, timbrels and dance, burst out in song (Exodus 15:21): “Sing to the L-rd for He is exalted above the arrogant, hurling horse and rider into the sea.”

And yet, as soon as they leave the Red Sea and enter the wilderness of Shur, the people, who moments earlier ecstatically praised G-d, start complaining. Traveling for a three day period in the wilderness, the people could find no water. When they arrive at a place called Marah, they find the waters there too bitter to drink. The desperate Israelites cry out to Moses, Exodus 15:24, מַה נִּשְׁתֶּה? “What shall we drink?”

The beleaguered leader beseeches the Al-mighty for help, and G-d shows Moses a tree, which he throws into the water, turning the waters sweet. The Torah testifies that, Exodus 15:25, שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט, וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ, there [in Marah] G-d established for the nation the creed and ordinance, and there He tested it.

Soon after, the people journey to a place called Elim, where they remain for twenty days.

On the fifteenth day of the second month from their departure from the land of Egypt, the Children of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Sin and again begin to complain. They cry out to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 16:3), “If only we had died by the hand of the L-rd in the land of Egypt, as we sat by the pot of meat, when we ate bread to satiety, for you have taken us out of this wilderness to kill this entire congregation by famine.”

G-d responds, delivering manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that sustains the people for the next forty years in the wilderness.

Apparently, the former slaves, who were miraculously liberated from Egypt, have, in short order, become hardened ingrates, and people of meager faith. Despite Moses and Aaron’s untiring efforts on their behalf, the people constantly complain. They are indeed a people possessed with a slave mentality, who do not seem deserving to enter the Promised Land.

Except for the brief sojourn in Elim, there appears to be no respite to the peoples’ antipathy and complaints. What exactly happened in Elim?

A single, somewhat cryptic, verse describes their arrival and stay at that location, Exodus 15:27, וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה, וְשָׁם שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עֵינֹת מַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים תְּמָרִים, וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם עַל הַמָּיִם, And they [the People of Israel], arrived at Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date-palms; and they camped there by the water.

What is the point of announcing that the people arrived in Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date-palms? It all seems rather extraneous and irrelevant.

One of the most fascinating statements in rabbinic literature is found in Maimonides‘ introduction to the commentary on the Mishneh, Chelek, the eleventh chapter of tractate Sanhedrin.

Writing about faith in G-d and Torah, Maimonides forcefully declares that every single verse of the Torah is of infinite value. He insists that there is no difference in importance between any of the verses of the Torah. As proof, Maimonides cites three seemingly insignificant verses, Genesis 10:6, “And the children of Ham, Cush, Mizrayim, Put, and Canaan,” Genesis 36:39, “And his wife’s name was Mehetabel, the daughter of Matred,” Geneses 36:12, “And Timna was the concubine of Eliphaz.” These apparently inconsequential verses are no less important, declares Maimonides, than the presumed “momentous” declarations, “I am the L-rd, your G-d,” (Deuteronomy 5:6) or, “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is your G-d, the L-rd is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). All of these verses, insists Maimonides, were uttered by G-d, and are an essential part of the pure and sacred Torah of the Al-mighty.

If that is the case, then surely the seemingly “trivial” verse about Israel’s sojourn in Elim must come to teach something of significance. The Torah is not simply reporting to those who study the Torah today (thirty-three hundred years later), the number of springs and date-palms in Elim, and that the People of Israel had encamped by the water.

What is the message that the Torah is communicating through this cryptic verse?

Some commentators maintain that the feeling of depravation that the Israelites experienced at that time, and the lack of water, was hardly a physical thirst, but rather a thirst resulting from the peoples’ low spiritual condition. And, as soon as the Israelites accepted upon themselves, in Marah, to observe some of the basic Jewish rituals, despite the sometimes “bitter waters” of observance, they were rewarded by being transported to a place of great abundance, with sweet waters and savory fruit.

Rashi citing the Mechilta, says that the twelve springs of water represent the twelve tribes, and the seventy date-palms correspond to the seventy elders.

Rabbeinu Bachya also cites the Mechilta, that says that these twelve springs and seventy trees were specifically prepared for Israel from the moment of creation. They symbolically anticipate the emergence of the twelve tribes and the seventy elders, and the important role that the tribes and the elders would play in future Jewish history.

The May’am Lo’ez states that before Israel reached Elim, the location was entirely barren. The moment that Israel arrived, date trees suddenly started to bloom and yield their delicious fruit. G-d had built into the creation plan that these fruits would appear when Israel arrived at this location. And even though there were only twelve wells, which would normally barely provide sufficient water to irrigate seventy palm trees, the wells miraculously provided enough water to sustain two million people for twenty days.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum, in Peninim on the Torah, suggests that the twelve springs of water and the seventy date-palms represent the paradigm of life. Human beings, who are entirely self-centered, begin to complain the moment that things do not go exactly as they planned. They find fault and criticize everything, because of their impatience and lack of sufficient faith to believe that G-d, who runs the universe, will fulfill His promises.

Maimonides is surely correct when he declares that every verse in the Torah is of ultimate importance, because the messages that flow from even the most insignificant and seemingly irrelevant verses are powerful, reflecting the infinite wisdom of G-d. Even though the people remained in Marah with its bitter waters for only a single day, and encamped in Elim with abundant food and water for twenty days, they failed to have faith that G-d would provide for them. And even when G-d provided them with water for a long period of time, it took only a very few days for them to again complain about the lack of food.

Could it be that the sudden appearance of the twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees is the Torah’s way of communicating that the weakened spiritual condition of the People of Israel was perhaps due to the inadequacy of the tribal leaders, or that the seventy elders were not sufficiently inspirational?

Although G-d had cured the bitter waters of Marah, and the people were thoroughly refreshed and sated from drinking the waters of the wells and eating the succulent dates of Elim, still the gifts of food and drink did not stop the complaints.

Perhaps the lesson of Elim is that while G-d always provides, different people react differently. For those who have no faith, nothing will ever suffice. For those who have faith, nothing will ever be lacking.

As Maimonides affirms, we learn as much from the verse regarding the twelve wells and seventy palms of Elim as we do from the verse declaring that the Al-mighty G-d brought the people out of Egypt.

Ours is to always search for the profound lessons that G-d seeks to communicate.

May you be blessed.

Please note: In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, features the “Shira,” the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.  Click here for more information.

Please note: On Sunday night and Monday, January 24th and 25th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat the special species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.