Beha’alotecha: Free Fish

hero image
Free Lunch
26 May 2010

Sometimes free is expensive.

Just consider those free miles (with your annual credit card), that free laptop (with 20 membership signups) and free gas (with a new car and up to 10,000 miles a year). No wonder, explained the Chofetz Chaim, that Avraham insisted on paying for the Machpelah. Everything in life costs and sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money.

As B’nei Yisrael trek through the desert, they crave, crying for meat, fish and a few other items. (11:4-5)

The collection [of nationalities] among them began to have strong cravings, and Bnei Yisroel turned and began to weep; and they said “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions and garlic.

Of particular note is their loss of free fish – Rashi wonders how this could be true:

Perhaps you will say that the Egyptians gave them fish freely. But did it not already say, “straw will not be given to you”? If they did not give them straw freely, would they have given them fish freely?

We shall return to Rashi – who is forced to reinterpret “free” in a non-literal fashion.

Ramban disputes Rashi’s question. Straw no, but fish yes! The slave collects straw as part of his work detail; fish is his fuel necessary for him to function. Further, Egypt – fed by the Nile had no fish shortage; certainly slaves, in the course of their work, were free to eat fish. For Ramban then, free really means free.

So what was wrong with Bnei Yisrael’s words?

One senses a cynical use of chinam, for it bespeaks a selective memory, pining for an era that never was; Imagine, l’havdil, Natan Scharansky pining for the cool Gulag during a Jerusalem Summer heat wave, or the prisoner waxing nostalgic over the loss his haute cuisine behind bars. Was free-fish Mitzrayim really the place to be? In Yogi’s (Berra) immortal words: “Nostalgia is not what it used to be”.

And for Rashi, for whom the question remains and for whom free is not free, what then is it? His deep words give us a potential insight into the collective psyche of Klal Yisrael – and ourselves!

Then what is meant by “freely”? Free of the mitzvot. chinam min hamitzvot

Free from mitzvot – Really? A nation who but a few months earlier resoundingly declared, na’aseh v’nishma, suffer a complete turnabout and a total repudiation of their Sinai covenant?

Perhaps the notion is not free from mitzvot, but free from the THE mitzvot chinam min haMitzvot; i.e., not that Bnei Yisrael rejected mitzvot per se – Jews love mitzvot, especially when they engage them. It was their binding irrevocable and everlasting nature that created the real anxiety.

To do mitzvot is one thing, to be forced is quite another. Thus, a counter intuitive Talmudic [Kiddushin 30a] statement teaches gadol hametzuveh v’oseh yoteir mimi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh – greater is the reward for one who is commanded and does [mitzvot], than the volunteer who does. Ba’alei Hatosafot explain that the moment one has to do it, the task becomes harder, the yetzer hara becomes more challenging. In common parlance, I am happy to take out the garbage as long as you don’t ask me. As all shuls know, it is hard to fire a volunteer.

Bnei Yisrael trek through the desert; the dawning notion of their eternal relationship with God sinks in. As they considered the implications of the irreversible nature of their commitment, they pine for the chinam of Mitzrayim; sure, a slave lives with toil and without purpose, but he carries no ultimate responsibility. In Talmudic lexicon [Gittin 13a]: avda b’hefkeira nicha leih. The servant likes lawlessness.

Our binding relationship with Hashem makes it real. Real relationships neither wilt with crises nor wither under the caprice of the moment. Real relationships require constant nurturing and painstaking effort. It is precisely the secure and eternal nature of a relationship that allows one to grow. A whimsical and impulsive relationship (ala Western marriage) would certainly not survive the vicissitudes of 3300 years.

For many who ask (or who have to answer) – “but why do I have to?” and those for whom “cuz” won’t suffice, it is worthy to consider that our eternal relationship creates the intimacy/ comfort with/in Hashem that makes it all worthwhile. The parent who wakes up for, or stays up with, one’s child may occasionally ask that why question, but as he walks down with his child down the chupah, the answer becomes pristinely clear.

May our national chupah come quickly.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.