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Free Fish

Sometimes free is expensive.

Consider those free miles (with your annual credit card), that free laptop (with twenty membership signups) and free gas (with a new car and up to ten thousand miles a year). No wonder, explained the Chofetz Chaim, Avraham insisted on paying for the Machpela. For everything in life there is cost, and sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money.

As Bnei Yisrael trek through the desert, they crave and cry out for meat, fish, and a few other items.

The collection [of nationalities] among them began to have strong cravings, and Bnei Yisrael 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.[1] 

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

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 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 according to Ramban, what was wrong with Bnei Yisrael's words?

One senses a cynical use of the word chinam, for it connotes a selective memory, a pining for an era that never was. Imagine, l'havdil, Natan Sharansky pining for the cool Gulag during a Jerusalem Summer heat wave, or the prisoner waxing nostalgic over the loss of 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? The profundity of his words provides us with insight into the collective psyche of Klal Yisrael - and ourselves!

Then, what is meant by "freely"? Free of the mitzvos. chinam min hamitzvos.

Free from mitzvos - really? A nation who but a few months earlier resoundingly declared, naaseh v'nishma, suffers a turnabout? Are we to believe that their words represent a  total repudiation of their Sinai covenant?

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

To do mitzvos is one thing, to be forced is quite another. Thus, a counterintuitive Talmudic  statement teaches gadol hametzuveh v'oseh yoseir m'mi she'eino metzuveh v'oseh - greater is the reward for one who is commanded and performs [mitzvos], than the volunteer who does.[2] Baalei HaTosafos 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.

As Bnei Yisrael trekked through the desert; the dawning notion of their eternal relationship with God began to sink in. As they considered the implications of the irreversible nature of their commitment, they pined for the chinam of Mitzrayim; sure, a slave lives with toil and without purpose, but ultimately, he bears no responsibility. In Talmudic lexicon: Avda b'hefkeira nicha leih.[3] The servant likes lawlessness.

An optional relationship with Hashem however,  wouldn't work. The very fact that it is binding 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 it to survive - and grow. A whimsical and impulsive relationship (a la Western marriage) would certainly not survive the vicissitudes of three thousand, three hundred 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 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 his child down the chuppah, the answer becomes pristinely clear. Commitment makes relationships deeper - and more beautiful.

May our national chuppah come quickly.

 

A Gutten Shabbos to All

Asher 


[1] Bamidbar 11:4-5.

[2] Kiddushin 30a.

[3] Gittin 13a.


 
   
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