When Bnei Yisrael arrive at Refidim, they realize they have a problem: they have no water to drink. They immediately complain to Moshe and demand that he give them water. This seems normal so far, very similar to numerous other stories of Bnei Yisrael’s complaints in their sojourns. However, Moshe berates the nation and gives a very odd response. He first says, “Mah Terivun Imadi,” “Why are you fighting with me,” but then he adds, “Mah Tenasun Et Hashem,” “Why do you test Hashem?” (Shemot 17:2). It is understandable for Moshe to be so angry with Bnei Yisrael; they are described as “fighting” with him by the Pasuk (“VaYarev”) and not merely as complaining. But why does Moshe think that they are attacking Hashem as well? The people want water; they aren’t attempting to test Hashem’s ability!
It is not only Moshe who responds so harshly to Bnei Yisrael. Rashi interprets the juxtaposition of this scene with Amaleik’s attack as the punishment for a sin. Bnei Yisrael are wondering if Hashem is truly with them and if He will give them water, so Hashem sends Amaleik to attack Bnei Yisrael to show them what they will be missing without His presence (17:8 s.v. VaYavo Amaleik). Furthermore, the Pasuk recaps the incident as being a real test by Bnei Yisrael (17:7), so Hashem obviously does not take to this complaint very lightly. But where is this coming from? Where is the evidence that they are truly testing Hashem?
The answer may lie in the Parashah’s previous story. In Perek 16, Bnei Yisrael cry out for food, and Hashem answers their pleas by giving them Man. The Man falls each day, and Bnei Yisrael collect their portion. The Pasuk describes the scene of collection as, “VaYilketu Oto BaBoker BaBoker Ish Kefi Ochlo VeCham HaShemesh VeNamas,” “And [Bnei Yisrael] collected it (the Man) every morning, each person according to his eating; and as the sun heated up, it would disintegrate” (16:21). The last phrase mentions a very unique quality of the Man; it would melt and become drinkable. As the Mechilta explains (ad. loc. s.v. VaYilketu Oto BaBoker BaBoker), the Man would melt and form brooks and streams, and the rams and deer would drink from it; when other nations would eat these animals, they would taste the Man and know the greatness of Bnei Yisrael. The most crucial aspect of this particular miracle is that the Man became drinkable. If animals in the desert could drink it, why can’t Bnei Yisrael? When Bnei Yisrael complain to Moshe about not having water, they are lying; in reality, they have water from the leftover Man!
The obvious conclusion from this is that Bnei Yisrael are testing Hashem’s willingness to give them water. The Pasuk reports their question as, “HaYeish Hashem BeKirbeinu Im Ayin,” “Is Hashem among us or not” (17:7). If He is with Bnei Yisrael, then He can and will give them water. It is also possible that they are testing how far His sovereignty extends, wondering if it reaches that far into the desert. But there is also a bigger sin that Bnei Yisrael commit at the site forever known as Masah UMerivah, “test and fight.” Not only do they test Hashem and His abilities, but they flat-out reject His miracles. Bnei Yisrael don’t need to test for Hashem’s presence; they have the Man right in front of them! Hashem is clearly giving them food. And if they feel that maybe He can only perform one miracle at a time and cannot give them both food and water simultaneously, they can easily look at the Man after it disintegrates. In the Man they have both food and water, and yet Bnei Yisrael still reject Hashem.
This leads to the consequence of the episode. At Masah UMerivah, Bnei Yisrael reject Hashem’s miracles and demand that He let them return to the lifestyle and items that they are used to. They don’t want magical, miracle water; they want real water. In this demand, it is as if Bnei Yisrael are demanding that Hashem go away from them; they feel better off without Him and want Him gone. As a direct consequence Hashem follows through, and He leaves for a short while. Amaleik attacks, and Bnei Yisrael then know what it is like to be missing Hashem’s protection. The cause-and-effect of the two episodes doesn’t really make sense if Bnei Yisrael are only testing God. Their wondering about His presence should not result in His leaving them. When Bnei Yisrael are in such an infantile stage, Hashem should only show them kindness and positive reinforcement of His presence, not such a harshly negative one. Until this point, Hashem does not really get angry at Bnei Yisrael; since the Exodus nothing negative actually happens to them. The only logical conclusion is that Bnei Yisrael are much more grievous in their “exploration” of Hashem. They want Him out of their lives. The “Masah” in the name of the event is not so bad, but the emphatic closing of the name, “Merivah,” fight, is much more telling.