Parashat BeShalach is an action packed and exciting Parashah. It includes the final showdown with the Egyptians—the miraculous splitting of the sea—the miracle of the Man, the miracle of water from a rock, and, at the end of the Parashah, another showdown, only this time with Amaleik. In the midst of all the excitement, there is a very small but crucial episode which occurs immediately after Keriyat Yam Suf involving the encampment at Marah. At the end of Perek 15, in very few Pesukim, the Torah relates how we arrive in Marah and that its water is bitter. To remedy the bitterness, Moshe throws a stick into the water which then turns sweet. Incongruously, the story concludes, “Sham Sam Lo Chok UMishpat VeSham Nisahu,” “There, he placed laws and statutes, and from there they travelled” (Shemot 15:25). At this juncture, before moving on, Moshe introduces some form of laws. What laws are being taught now and why is now the right time for them?
Addressing which Mitzvot were given at Marah, Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Sham Sam Lo) explains that, in fact, three were given: Shabbat, Dinim (a judicial system or basic interpersonal laws), and Parah Adumah. The first two Mitzvot seem extremely appropriate to be presented at this juncture. Because Matan Torah is not scheduled to occur until a few weeks’ time and the Jews are beginning daily life in the Midbar, a basic system of judgment is necessary to govern the everyday challenges and disputes. Because the very next commandment to the people is to not gather the Man on Shabbat, it is necessary to introduce Shabbat, too. However, why must Parah Adumah be introduced now and not at Matan Torah, a mere six weeks in the future?
Perhaps Parah Adumah is needed now precisely because of Bnei Yisrael’s circumstances. Unlike most of the previous plagues, Keriyat Yam Suf results in the deaths of all of the Egyptian assailants. Shortly after this episode at Marah, the Jews will fight against Amaleik. The young Jewish nation—from Egypt until Har Sinai—is surrounded by the unfortunate reality of death. How does so much exposure to war and death affect a people? Would it not diminish the value of human life in her eyes? Would those whose own lives have been deemed meaningless by the Egyptians—a people which, ironically, would not tolerate the killing of animals, yet killed Jews on a daily basis—not struggle to appreciate the value of each human being? Perhaps it was crucial for the people to be reminded that exposure to death should affect them. One should experience the overwhelming loss of each person. Therefore, there is a seven day period, similar to the seven days of mourning, during which to recognize the value of human life. That the process of Parah Adumah is a Chok and not understood resembles the fact that taking away human life should be something to struggle to come to terms with and not be readily accepted.
Non-coincidentally, the punishment for violating any of the seven Mitzvot given to Bnei Noach— Mitzvot which represent the basic structure of the world’s morality—is derived from the prohibition against murder (Sanhedrin 47a), because the foundation of all of the Mitzvot is the recognition that each person was created BeTzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. The Torah is making it very clear that nothing is more valuable than human life. Even before actually receiving the Torah, we are reminded that the foundation of Torah and the foundation of all morality start with the message of the Parah Adumah: losing a single person is like losing the whole world.