FROM THE CONSERVATIVE YESHIVA IN JERUSALEM
What’s Preferable – Freedom or Free Fish?
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty and Coordinator, Torah Sparks
The story is told of a young monk who joins a silent monastery. The rules are simple, the abbot tells him. “You can speak two words every ten years.” After ten years the young monk says “Bed hard.” Ten years later, “Food bad.” After 30 years he tells the abbot, “I quit.” The senior monk looks at him and says, “I’m not surprised. You’ve been complaining ever since you got here.” We can pretty safely assume the monk in the story was not Jewish – his first complaint is not about the food.
For me Baha’alotḥa is the saddest parashah in the Torah. It begins gloriously – the Menorah is prepared, the silver trumpets readied for the departure from Sinai, the Fiery Cloud is in place to lead them to the land “the Lord spoke of.” The first ten chapters of Numbers have the air of a new beginning, all running to plan. The Divine plan, according to Rashi (10:29 and 10:32), was to bring them to Israel “in three days.”
But then it all collapsed, like a giant soufflé. While the 39 year delay in the desert is usually attributed to the episode of the spies next week in Shlaḥ leḥa (ch 14), Rashi (quoting the Midrash) says it began with the mitonanim, the “complainers” (11:1). The people then demand meat and recall, with the tone of ‘the good old days,’ “the fish which we ate free in Egypt, the cucumbers and melons, the leeks, onions and garlic” (11:5). Actually they had made similar complaints shortly after leaving Egypt (Ex. 16:3): “In Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.” Complaining about the food, early and often, is a very old Jewish custom; no waiting ten or twenty years.
The recollection of the time in Egypt is astonishing; the experience there – slavery, avodat parech (hard labor), brutal taskmasters – is reduced to food in abundance or even free. Nostalgia is memory after the facts have been deleted. Psychologists say that the tendency to “brighten” the past is actually positive for our emotional wellbeing.
But one word is particularly striking – “the fish we ate ḥinam – free.” Several commentators explain it literally: fish were plentiful in Nile; the Egyptians would feed the slaves fish so they’d be strong for work.
Rashi rejects that idea – if the Egyptians didn’t give them straw for bricks it was hardly likely they would let them eat fish free. Ḥinam for Rashi means ḥinam min hamitsvot, free from the commandments (11:5). At Sinai the children of Israel received the Torah, the commandments upon which the life and conduct of the Jewish people are based. The Midrash tells how the Israelites “departed from Sinai” – they fled from the message of Sinai, Torah and mistvot, like children running from school when the bell rings. Am Yisrael in those days was subservient to the material side of life – slaves to bread and circuses, or, perhaps, to Sushi and the football games. We’re happy, let’s go back to Egypt; don’t bother us with Torah. Are things so different today?
Rebbe Elazar Ben Azaria articulates the equilibrium at the heart of Judaism (Pirkei Avot 3:21) – im ein kemach ein torah, if there is no flour (material sustenance) there is no Torah, and vice versa. We have to include and appreciate both. Judaism is neither ascetic, as some religions, ancient and modern, nor pleasure-obsessed, as so much of western culture today. Striking that balance is the challenge the Jews faced at Sinai and that we face today.