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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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