Testing God

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

This week’s parsha contains some of the seminal moments in the history of Bnei Yisrael. Events such as the splitting of the sea, the destruction of the Egyptian army, the introduction of mitzvos at Marah, the manna, and the war with Amalek are each, by themselves, subjects of enormous significance. There is one incident, though, that at first glance seems to be relatively minor. Nestled between the commandments regarding the manna and the war with Amalek is the account of Maase-Merivah, a seemingly ubiquitous story of complaint that actually plays a pivotal role in the development of the nation.

The story unfolds with Bnei Yisrael arriving at Rifidim, where there was no readily available drinking water. The Torah then says (Shemos 17:2):

“The people quarreled with Moshe, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moshe said to them, "Why are you quarreling with me? Why are you testing God?"”

At this point, God remains silent. The Torah continues, explaining that the people became thirsty, questioning the rationale for leaving Egypt to die in the desert. Moshe is mispallel to God, who then instructs Moshe to take his staff, and along with the elders of the nation, strike a specific rock from which water will flow. The story concludes:

“He [Moshe] named the place Massah and Merivah because the B'nei Yisrael had quarreled [Merivah] and because they had tested [Massah] God, saying, "Is God among us or not?"”

This story seems pretty formulaic in light of Bnei Yisrael’s future complaints against Moshe and God. Yet, this incident is isolated from the others. In Parshas Veschanan (Devarim 6:16), we see the following:

“Do not test Hashem, your God, as you tested at Massah.”

The fact that the prohibition against testing God referred to in Devarim emerges from the above incident indicates that this was the quintessential example of this behavior and is thereby ripe for analysis.

The Ramban (ibid), in explaining the prohibition against testing God, writes that a person should not say, “Is God among us to perform miracles for us?” According to the Ramban, this was the perspective of Bnai Yisrael at the time of the incident at Rifidim. Bnei Yisrael essentially offered an ultimatum to God – if He would provide them with water using a miracle, they would follow Him into the desert, and if not, they would leave. The Ramban (to paraphrase) then explains that a person should not worship God with the caveat that He will act in a miraculous way, nor should he worship God with the expectation of reward. 

One astonishing point the Ramban makes requires some clarification. How do we understand the drive of Bnei Yisrael, who had just been saved from the Egyptians with the splitting of the sea and were the recipients of the miraculous manna, somehow issuing an ultimatum to God? Furthermore, were the previous miracles somehow inadequate, precipitating the desire for yet another show of God’s control over nature? (The general problem of testing God is pretty self-evident and not the objective of this article)

The event of Maaseh-Merivah was one of crucial importance and it occurred at a pivotal moment in the sequence of events. The splitting of the sea and death of the Egyptians served to sever the existing slave mentality state of Bnai Yisrael. It also demonstrated to them the unique relationship between God and themselves, a relationship they could reflect on now that they were saved. With Bnei Yisrael freed from their psychological shackles, God then introduces numerous mitzvos to the nation (at Marah), indicating that they would be tied to a system of commandments that would guide their lives. It was also a further indication of how Bnei Yisrael would be unique, the derech Hashem available to this nation alone. God then brings the manna, a miraculous food that would provide the necessary sustenance to Bnei Yisrael. With this continuous daily supply, Bnei Yisrael was now able to place their entire security in God. And much like the previous examples, it certainly strengthened their belief in an exclusive relationship with God. So we see at this point two developments. One is the evolution of the nation, from slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptian people to worshipers of the one true God. The other is the evolution of their sense of self and the requisite feeling of self-importance which is likely where their error emerged. Up to this point, God had often related to the nation through the use of miracles. To know that God altered, and continued to alter, the natural order for them on a “regular” basis created a distortion in the way Bnei Yisrael viewed themselves in relation to God. They developed a sense of expectation, where God would provide for them due to their important status. Furthermore, they latched on to the feature of the miraculous, where God’s use of miracles to the benefit of Bnei Yisrael would reinforce their self-image. Therefore, when they arrived at Rifidim, prior to even needing any water, they expressed their expectation that God would provide it for them. As the Ramban so brilliantly notes, it was not just the basic need of water they were searching for – “Is God among us to perform miracles for us?” God should make use of a miracle in order to give them this water, buttressing their sense of self-importance.

It is important to emphasize that while this indeed was an error on the part of Bnei Yisrael, God does not openly punish them for this distortion. God essentially ignores the initial request for water, only responding once Bnei Yisrael were thirsty. The implication from this is that their flaw was not an unexpected one. To undergo the transformation from slave nation to where they were now, engaging in the derech Hashem and receiving direct sustenance from God, is nothing short of psychological upheaval, and this self-importance was not an entirely unavoidable by-product of their rapid progression. We see in God’s plan the attempt to right the ship. Rashi (Shemos 17:5) points out that Moshe was commanded to take the elders in order to refute the assumption that the water God would be providing would be from some overlooked spring. This helps clarify the nature of God’s plan. On the one hand, to provide sustenance at this very moment with a public miracle would serve to further the distortion. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate for Bnei Yisrael to assume this water came from a purely natural cause. The hashgacha had to be apparent, but in a way that would focus their attention on the correct ideas rather than their false sense of superiority. By removing the miraculous from the experiential into the abstract, the fantastic element exchanged for the importance of understanding their dependence on God, Bnei Yisrael would be able to correct their distorted self-image and serve God appropriately. 

That is not to say we should not view ourselves as having a one-of-a-kind relationship with God! Our relationship to God is certainly unique, but it exists within a certain framework. We are distinct in terms of our gift of the Torah and role in this world. To expect God to relate to us through the miraculous is a false one, and it serves to ultimately debase this bond. It is through the use of our minds, studying the Torah, following the commandments, and constantly analyzing the abstract surrounding universe of ideas, that we properly fulfill our end of this relationship.