"It was there (Marah ) that He taught them a decree and a law and there He tested them" (15:25). The Jewish people had just finished singing a song of gratitude for their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Yet just three days later "the people complained to Moshe" the first (well actually it was already the second since leaving Egypt) of many in the days and years to come. It was obvious that we were in no shape to receive the Torah. It was to take another six weeks of mental and physical preparation for the big day. Thus our Rabbis comment that at Marah we received three of the mitzvot of the Torah namely Shabbat, Dinim and Parah Adumah . Apparently these mitzvot were necessary preconditions to being able to receive the rest of the Torah. A close examination of these mitzvot will help explain why.
Shabbat first and foremost testifies to the fact that G-d created the world and thus is its ultimate master. Without acknowledgment of our duty to follow the laws of the Creator then we can not hope to appreciate the other more detailed mitzvot of Sinai. Shabbat is also a direct reminder of our freedom from slavery, the definition of freedom means sanctifying time and not being slaves to others timetables. Freedom brings with it the obligation to guarantee freedom for others, thus the sanctity of Shabbat means giving your workers even your "slaves" the day off. These two concepts of recognition of G-d and freedom for all are of course related. Those who acknowledge that they are not the master of the universe are more likely to display sensitivity towards others.
The second set of laws that was given at Marah were dinim, those civil laws that help guarantee the smooth running of society. Without social order anarchy reigns. Thus Jewish law always insisted that we must pray for the welfare of the state. This was said in the pre democratic era, how much more so today. We all know the dangers when governments are not recognized as authoritative. It should come as no surprise to us that immediately following Parshat Yitro is Parshat Mishpatim with its detailed laws regarding such items as lending money, lost objects, bailees, torts and stolen property. These dinim are the true test of whether we do accept that we are servants of G-d. Not coincidentally parshat mishpatim opens with the duty to recognize the Jewish court (Beit Din) as our arbiter of disputes. Interestingly the Torah refers to the judges using the term elokim as our acceptance of The Elokim is conditioned on our proper application of dinim.
These two concepts of Shabbat and dinim representing our obligations to G-d and our obligations to our fellow man were not enough. We had to be taught the laws of Parah Adumah , the ultimate chok (statute). Not only does its purpose defy human logic and comprehension it is a self-contradictory ritual purifying the impure while it makes those who were pure impure. Basic to our acceptance of Torah, to being a Jews is accepting the inexplicable and even the contradictory. Why do so many nations hate us? Why is there a double standard regarding Israel? Being a Jew means being part and parcel of a historical process that seems to go forward and backwards at the same time. It means struggling with the many contradictions of life - the suffering of the righteous, the conflict between peace and truth and justice and mercy, personal autonomy versus acceptance of authority, and balancing our duties as Jews with our duties as citizens.
Our sojourn in Egypt marked the beginning of a long process towards Torah and Israel. That process must begin with the realization that G-d is the master of the universe, that he enjoins us to create a just society and that many of lives questions will remain unanswered. Shabbat Shalom!