parsha of the week

Surviving in wilderness, connecting with Hashem


After Moshe followed the instructions that made the waters of Marah drinkable, we are told, “There he taught them ‘chok u’mishpat’ and there he tested them.” The simple translation of the term “chok u’mishpat” is “a decree and a law,” while “survival techniques and methods” is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of choice, on the heels of Ramban and the Tur.

Survival techniques?

Be a drone for a minute and take a bird’s eye view of what transpired. Slaves went out of Egypt and into the wilderness with limited provisions, not knowing if they were on a three-day journey or a full exodus. Now they’ve seen their masters drowned in the sea and they are on the other side; they know there’s no going back.

Maybe Ramban and the Tur are onto something, maybe the Israelites need courses in “Wilderness Survival 101” and “How To Make It Through a Few Weeks Travel To the Promised Land With the Shirt on Your Back.”

Rav Kasher, in his Torah Shleimah Commentary (note 270) shares a few salient points, organized in progression. First, the Pesikta, which explains how the Torah begins with interpersonal laws. Second, the Ramban, who explains Moshe needed to give the people basic instructions for how to survive in the wilderness. Third, how to call out to G-d when hungry or thirsty, without resorting to complaining. Fourth, that they should learn to love their neighbors and to follow the advice of the elders to “walk humbly with your G-d.” Fifth, they should engage peacefully with neighbors who come from outside the Israelite camp, to engage in commerce. Sixth, he aimed to give them mussar (ethical behavior lectures) to avoid being like other traveling bands who engage in every abomination.

Most directly, he quotes Rabbeinu Chananel, who emphasizes that Moshe had to teach them the ways of the wilderness. Another possibility is that G-d had taught Moshe botany, herbology and pharmacognosy, so he could use plant life they’d come across for medicinal purposes while traveling and engaging with other human beings.

I find all of these perspectives fascinating because they imagine a real experience for the Israelites. It comes before the gift and promise of the manna while people needed real solutions to real problems. It is one thing to consider the miraculous existence of the Israelites in the wilderness as something supernatural, it is entirely different to consider the truth. That they needed to learn the ways of the world — how to conduct a business transaction, for example. And they needed to learn military skills and tactical actions so they could confront an Amalek on the battlefield.

They needed to learn about medicine and what is safe to eat, what is helpful, and what is poisonous.

How many of us could survive without electricity? How many of us could survive in a wilderness or in forests? The story of Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman having had a lesson in edible plants from Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski before WWII is reportedly why he would lovingly water plants in his yeshiva later in life — as gratitude for the opportunity to survive made possible by the plants he knew were safe or beneficial owing to the lessons from Rav Chaim Ozer.

When my family visited Mount Vernon, we marveled over how meat would be stored without a refrigerator and how all kinds of household chores for which we rely on electricity were done without it. Perhaps we should all visit Amish country and learn a thing or two about how to live in a world without electricity.

Taking a slightly different turn, we can easily understand that just as there are different ways to live and survive in the wilderness, on the miraculous front and in the natural arena, the same principle would apply to how we live our Jewish lives today.

There are different theories as to how many correct paths exist in Jewish life and observance. Whether it is “eilu v’eilu,” 49 tameh v. 49 tahor, or 70 faces, there are a number of ways in which people can get close to G-d. Nowadays, we too often see people saying things like “My way or the highway.” This is tragic, because seeing things in only one way is anti-Torah. It could be that one way works for me, but my way may not work for you and your way might not work for me.

I can’t find the quote, but in a recent “off-the-derech” memoir, I found a very provocative insight about this. The author suggested that Hassidism was founded on the notion that a person can come to G-d through multiple different paths. The author lamented that some Hassidic sects now have exactly the opposite view and are unembracing of the outside world and cold or indifferent (these are certainly generalizations) to Jews who are not like them (except when doing chesed or kiruv).

This kind of rigidity exists in many circles. While we often acknowledge that what another person is doing shouldn’t bother us, we are very often judgmental and the way others live their Judiasm really does bother us.

It’s time to recognize that 70 faces means 70, and not “my way or the highway.” Do what works for you but don’t be critical of the person whose approach is different, but is nevertheless grounded in the Torah.

We learn from Rav Kasher’s collection of ideas that there are many ways to live, to connect with the world, and to connect with G-d.