Beha’alotcha: Free Fish

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Fish Jumping out of Water
10 Jun 2009

Sometimes free is expensive.

Consider all those free miles (with your annual credit card), free laptop (with the purchase of) and free gas (with a new car and up to 10,000 miles a year). The Chofetz Chaim (in discussing why Avraham was so insistent on paying for Machpela) pointed out that everything in life costs; sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money. Free with fine print is usually not worth the money.

As B’nei Yisrael trek through the desert, they begin to crave; they cry for meat, fish and a few other items. Of particular note is their loss of free fish: (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.

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?

Ramban however disputes the question. Straw no, but fish yes – for straw is part of the slave’s work detail while fish, like any food is needed for slaves to function. Further, Mitzrayim, fed by the Nile had no shortage of fish and in the course of their work, the slaves were free to eat. Thus free really means free.

So if it was true, what was wrong with their words?

Intuitively, we sense a cynical use of chinam (free), one that bespeaks the sin of selective memory, pining for an era that never was; Can you imagine, l’havdil, Natan Scharansky pining for the cool Gulag during a Jerusalem Summer heat wave or a prisoner waxing nostalgic over the loss of his haute cuisine. 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 free does not mean free, what then is it? Indeed, Rashi and Ramban probably do not argue. For Rashi’s deep words give us a potential insight into the collective psyche of Klal Yisrael:

Then what is meant by “freely”? Free of mitzvot.

Free from mitzvot. Is that what it’s all about? The nation who a few months earlier ringingly declared, na’ase v’nishma have a complete about-face, and a total repudiation of their Sinaitic acceptance?!

What does chinam min hamitzvot really mean here?

Perhaps the notion is not free from mitzvot, but free from the THE mitzvot, i.e., it was not that Bnei Yisrael rejected mitzvot; rather it was their binding nature that created such angst. Many love mitzvot. It is one thing to do the mitzvot, quite another to have no choice. 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 than one who volunteers and does. The Ba’alei Hatosafot explain that the moment one has to do, the task becomes harder, i.e. the yetzer hara more challenging. In other words, I am happy to take out the garbage as long as you don’t ask me. A volunteer is free to do as he/she pleases. It is (all shuls know) hard to fire a volunteer.

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

It is the binding nature of our relationship with Hashem that makes it real. Real relationships endure crises and do not wither under the whim and caprice of the moment. Real relationships require constant nurturing and painstaking effort. It is precisely the secure and eternal nature of that relationship that affords one the sense of security to grow. A relationship that is whimsical and subject to the capricious nature of the moment (ala Western marriage) could not survive the vicissitudes of 3300 years.

For many who ask (or who have to answer) – “but why do I have to?” and for whom “cuz” won’t suffice – it is worthy to consider that the very nature of our obligation creates an intimacy and relationship with Hashem that makes it all worthwhile. The parent who wakes up for his child may also ask that question, but as he/she walks down the chupah, the answer becomes manifestly clear.

May our national chupah come quickly.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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