זכרנו את הדגה אשר נאכל במצרים חינם, את הקישואים ואת האבטיחים ואת החציר ואת הבצלים ואת השומים. ועתה נפשנו יבשה אין כל, בלתי אל המן עינינו
(במדבר יא, ה-ו)
The people of Israel are in the desert. They get their daily food from heaven: the Manna. Our sages tell us it tasted exactly the way its eaters wanted it to taste. Food you get for free, and it assumes any taste you wish it to assume. What more can one ask for?
And yet they complain:
We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.
(BaMidbar 11, 5-6)
Unbelievable. The Midrash asks: since when is anything given for free, “for nought”, to slaves? Did the Egyptians truly provide fish to the people of Israel? So the Midrash interprets the real complaint, hidden in the words “for nought”. They wanted to be free from any mitzvot, from any religious obligations. The people of Israel are complaining because they lost their “freedom” from mitzvot, which they did not need to keep in Egypt. Now that they are receiving this heavenly food, they understand that in in return they need to take responsibility and follow God’s commandments. There are no free lunches. So they would rather forgo the free gift of Manna and be free of the responsibilities it brings with it.
There’s a story about a boy in the cheder (Jewish school for primary school children) who was called upon by the teacher to recite the alphabet. The teacher pointed his stick to the letter Aleph and asked the boy: “what letter is this?”. The boy shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. So the teacher whacked his hand with the stick. Again the teacher pointed the stick at the board and repeated his question, and again the boy shrugged and said nothing. Whack! the stick came down again on the boy’s hand. The teacher despaired of this boy and moved on to the next pupil. After class, the boy’s friends asked him why he didn’t answer the teacher? The boy replied: of course I knew what Aleph looks like, but I’m smarter than that. If I had answered the teacher, he would have then asked about Bet, then about Gimmel, and so forth. I can’t be bothered with the whole ordeal, so I’d rather take a couple of whacks and be done with it.
The boy was avoiding taking responsibility, knowing that a long, hard road lay ahead of him. Often in life, we are afraid to take the first step, lest we need to assume responsibility for our action later. We’d rather take a few hits here and there than take this first step. The people of Israel were reluctant to embark on the great journey of being God’s children, so their reminisced about the non-existent fish of Egypt, where, as slaves, they were free from taking any responsibility over their actions.
It is also interesting to note another word in their complaint. They say: “we remember the fish which we will eat (אשר נאכל) in Egypt”. They refer to the eating in the future tense, and not in the past tense (אשר אכלנו). This can be understood if we remember that it is imaginary fish we are talking about. There were no fish for the Jews in Egypt. The people of Israel are dreaming about a world that would be rather than the world that is. They refuse to appreciate what they have (the Manna) and prefer instead to fantasize about what they don’t have (imaginary fish). Sometimes, the imaginary world is more appealing to us than the real world and we obsess about fulfilling unreal dreams rather than reveling in what we have. This idea can also be illustrated in a story:
A poor man was spending his hard-earned wages every week on lottery tickets. His wife, tired of this habit, implored him to stop, explaining the futility of his actions. But to no avail, the betting continued week after week. In her despair she took her husband to the rabbi, who eventually succeeded to get the man to agree to quit his betting ways. The wife then turned angrily to her husband and chided him about wasting their money for so many years. The man shrugged and told his wife: “You don’t understand, my dear wife. Every night before the lottery drawing, I went to sleep winning the lottery! That feeling was no waste”.
Just as the poor man who had a chance to dream about an imaginary world every week, so the people of Israel chose to dream about a fantasy “fish world”. Hence the future tense of their eating. It never materialized, it was always a fantasy.