In this week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha, the people complain about the lack of food in the desert. Not so much the lack of food – they had the manna from heaven – rather the lack of certain tastes and enough of a variety. It says in chapter 11 verse 5: “We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for free,” and then the verse lists all the vegetables they remembered eating. This isn’t the first time the people complained with such cynicism: at moments of crisis, one of the first things they would say was that they were better off as slaves in Egypt, even though they were now free and had experienced all these great miracles.
One thing this teaches us is that the Torah is a book of truth and not a book of stories where all the unpleasant parts are edited. At times, people fall and don’t live up to the greatness they are capable of. There certainly were moments of crisis in the desert, and the Torah – as a book of truth – unashamedly relates everything that took place.
But there is another thing we learn from this narrative. The commentaries ask, what did they mean by saying the fish was for “free”? They didn’t get anything for free; they were slaves. Pharaoh didn’t even provide them with building materials to build; they had to find their own straw. Who gave them food for free?
The Ramban gives a very practical answer and says that the Jewish slaves worked as fishermen in Egypt, and the extra fish caught in the nets were given to the slaves to eat. So, technically, they did get surplus fish for free from their masters. Regarding the produce they mentioned in their complaint, the Ramban explains that they grew wild throughout Egypt, and so the Jewish slaves got produce for free as well. Alternatively, says the Ramban, their food was supplied by the palace because they were working as Pharaoh’s slaves, and so he provided for their basic sustenance. Thus, either way, it is possible they got their food “for free” as slaves.
But the question is, why did they focus on the fact that it was “free”? The manna from heaven was also free; it landed from the sky and they ate it without having to pay for it. What, then, did they mean by chinam, “for free”?
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says that what they meant was that in Egypt they could eat chinam min hamitzvot, “free from keeping mitzvahs”. They had not yet been given the Torah, and even though they were slaves, they were “free” from the duties of the commandments. So although on the surface they were complaining about the food, what they were really complaining about was their having to keep the commandments of the Torah. When the people complained, they demonstrated that they viewed the mitzvahs as a burden and that they wanted to be free of them.
This opens up a very sensitive and important question, namely, how do we relate to the commandments? Do we view them as a burden or as a privilege and a joy in our lives?
The commandments are not there to restrict but to enhance our lives
How we relate to the mitzvahs reflects our attitude toward Judaism and serving Hashem. Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mir says that some people view the commandments of the Torah as something we just have to do in order to get our just reward in the World to Come. They view this world as one of suffering and deprivation, where we have to just clench our teeth and do the mitzvahs. Rav Yerucham says that this approach is fundamentally flawed. Of course the Torah was given as a guidebook of right and wrong and what is G-d’s will, but G-d gave it to us so that we could enjoy olam hazeh, this world. To demonstrate the point, Rav Yerucham quotes from Vayikra, chapter 18 verse 5, which says: “Keep My decrees and laws so that a person may do them and live by them.”
The commentaries on this verse ask, what does vachai bahem, mean – that a person shall do the commandments and “live by them”? They explain that this means the Torah was given to us to enable us to live optimally in this world and to derive the maximum joy out of it. The commandments are not only about what is right and wrong, and receiving reward in the World to Come. Rather, G-d structured the world in such a way that through the mitzvahs we can enjoy this world to the fullest.
Rav Yerucham brings Shabbos as an example. He says we could explain to people who have never experienced Shabbos that our day of rest is a day of restrictions: we can’t cook, we can’t drive and we can’t do this, that or the other. Or we can show them how, amazingly, the laws of what we may or may not do on Shabbos create an island of peace and tranquillity, of family bonding and enjoyment. The cooking has to be done before Shabbos and so on Shabbos itself everybody rests, including those family members responsible for the meals. Shabbos then becomes a day of inspiration and calm. This is particularly relevant in the fast pace of the modern world. Shabbos gives us more than twenty-four hours without cell phones, without interruptions, without having to drive anywhere or run any errands. So although one might think Shabbos is about restrictions, not being able to drive, answer emails, take phone calls, etc, it actually gives us temporary relief from the stresses of everyday life.
Shabbos is just one example, but the point that Rav Yerucham makes is that we have to have the proper attitude. The Torah is here not to deprive us of this world, but to enhance our experience of it. Of course, we do the mitzvahs because G-d commanded us to do them, but we mustn’t think that these commandments are there to deprive us of this world. They’re actually here to help us enjoy this world and to fulfil His will.
This is not to say that there aren’t many commandments that do restrict what we can say, do, eat or whatever it may be. But the idea is that through the framework created by the mitzvahs, we can actually find the greatest joy possible in life.
Torah learning is the key to having the right attitude toward the commandments
There is another point we learn from the people’s complaint in the desert, and this goes to the heart of our relationship with the Torah. What led the Jewish people to complain in the first place? What precipitated this crisis? Why now, at this particular point in time, did they want to be free of the mitzvahs?
Just before these complaints started, the parsha says: “They journeyed from the Mountain of G-d.” This was the first time they had left Mount Sinai. They left Egypt in the month of Nissan. Seven weeks later they encamped at the mountain to receive the Torah on Shavuot. The people then spent more than a year at the foot of Mount Sinai, and in our parsha, they resume their journey through the desert onward towards the Land of Israel. This was the first time they had left the mountain in over a year.
The Gemara says that their departure from the mountain was the start of the trouble and what led to their complaint. The Maharsha comments that Mount Sinai served as their Beit Midrash, their house of study. It was at Mount Sinai that they received the Torah and when they journeyed away from Mount Sinai, their inspiration left them and that’s when they started to view the mitzvahs as a burden.
We learn from this that the key to having the right attitude toward the mitzvahs is to continuously learn Torah. When we learn, we have the proper perspective, connection and inspiration. When we are detached from Torah learning, the mitzvahs can indeed feel burdensome.
Torah learning enjoyable experience
The Midrash says that when they left the mountain, they left “like a child running away from school”. They wanted to get away from the mountain and the learning of Torah, and because they ran away, they no longer felt the joy of learning.
It’s important to remember that it’s not just about learning, but about enjoying our learning, Torah learning brings joy and perspective to our mitzvahs, but only if the learning is a joyful experience. And this is why an integral part of the mitzvah of learning Torah is doing it with joy. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky points out that one of the blessings we say before learning Torah is: “[May G-d] make the words of Torah sweet.” Rav Kaminetsky cites from early authorities who say that the enjoyment of our learning is a crucial part of it, because if we don’t enjoy our learning and it itself is seen as a burden, everything else is going to be a burden as well. We need to find ways to make our Torah learning enjoyable and inspiring. Our sages say this very clearly: “A person doesn’t learn except where his heart so desires.”
Everyone enjoys different things and so we must find the material that we enjoy, the speaker we enjoy hearing, the person with whom we enjoy learning. We must also find the setting that brings us joy, because in that joy is the inspiration that will fill our lives and enhance our relationship with Hashem and His Torah.