“Free of Charge”
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
The large encampment was organized beautifully. Every tribe was camped around its flag in a set place. The Mishkan (tabernacle) was set in the centre of the camp – the heart of all camp activity. The nation had been given an all-encompassing, perfect system of mitzvos (commandments) to educate and elevate their entire culture. They had even been given a solution to all their financial problems – manna from heaven. But, “the people took to seeking complaints...” (Numbers 11:1).
The verse doesn’t explain what their complaints were. In fact, the verse seems to be saying that they weren’t complaining about anything in specific at all. They were just “seeking complaints,” vague murmurs of discontent, whispers insinuating a quiet sense of general dissatisfaction. They wanted “more” even though exactly what “more” they wanted was unclear even to the complainers themselves. The problem wasn’t really their life situation, it was them. They had a stunning lack of appreciation for everything that they had been given.
A few verses later the situation repeats itself: “The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving...” (ibid 4).
Again, an aimless craving, unexplained, an uneasiness spewing out incoherent wishes. They weren’t sure what they wanted, but all they knew was that everything that they had been given was not good enough.
As larger and larger sections of the nation became infected with this attitude, finally a concrete complaint was articulated: “...The Children of Israel wept once more, and said, ‘Who will feed us meat?’” (ibid 4).
All of a sudden, at that moment, the lust for meat grew larger than life. For the nation who had been saved from a life of slavery for a life of meaning and purpose, meat had suddenly turned into the purpose of everything, the most important goal in their lives. The satisfaction of this craving for meat was worth fighting for mercilessly. But the moment that meat became the reason d’être of the Jewish People, the weakness of their personalities was pathetically exposed.
Cravings can warp the mind. They can blur memories and give rise to claims that people may feel very embarrassed about later on. Following on the heels of the Jews’ clamour for meat came the cries, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now, our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to look forward to but the manna!” (ibid 5-6). Oh, for shame.
Let’s focus on one of the problems with the Jewish People’s outcry: the selective memory. The craving for meat erased all traces of memory about how severely they had suffered in Egypt. Instead, the Jews of the desert began harkening fondly back to Auschwitz – I mean, Egypt – where, so their selective memory dictated, they had lived a spa-like existence being served fish at every meal accompanied by side dishes of leeks, onions, and garlic! What nostalgia! Those were the days! What warm, balmy memories suddenly blew their way from the country that had tortured and enslaved them for some two hundred years! And this was only a short time after their redemption.
How could they forget so quickly? Could the Jews’ memory have be so clouded?
It turns out that the answer is, yes! Memories can be entirely deceptive, especially when a powerful craving grabs the heart and the body in an iron fist. Truth, to say nothing of logic, can go out the window at times like that.
But where did the discontent and meat-lust come from in the first place? Why weren’t the Jews happy with their lot?
Our sages find the answer in the verses themselves. One little word tells the whole story: chinam, free of charge. Rashi explains, “Why did they say ‘free of charge’? (They meant) free of the mitzvos.”
This one word is what trips up the argument of the Jewish People. This is what explains all the strange complaints about meat and fish. This is what explains all the fond memories suddenly rising up of the land of murder, torture, and enslavement. The key is “free of charge”. The words give away exactly what was really on their minds, the reason why Egypt suddenly appeared so appealing.
Their real complaint was too shameful to articulate, so they clothed it in crazy talk about the wonderful cucumbers of Egypt, a land where their days had been filled more with the slash of the whip and the weight of the chain than with time to eat anything.
The Jewish People’s real complaint was against the Torah and the mitzvos they had been given. Egypt had given no restraint to their wild, animalistic human nature. The Egyptians had no interest in their Jewish slaves’ psychological, social, or spiritual welfare. In Egypt the Jews had been free to pursue any self-destructive behaviour they wanted. Now their natures needed to be reigned in, civilized, and cultured by the requirements of moral civilization as defined by the Torah.
The Jews had transitioned very quickly from an existence of physical slavery lacking any boundaries at all to an existence spiritually free but bound by a highly disciplined physical and psychological training program. The Jews’ response to this transition was very unfortunate. They became bitter and began to yammer on about the life they had left behind in Egypt and the fish they had been given “free of charge”.
But the manna was a supernatural food which tasted like anything they wanted. Their demand for fish was absurd. It wasn’t fish or meat that they wanted. Subconsciously, they wanted to live free of mitzvos, so much so that going back to Auschwitz – I mean, Egypt – seemed to look good. Oh, those silly Jews! If only they had appreciated what they had been given...