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Parshas Behaaloscha (5768)

Jews and Free Food

Everyone knows that the Jewish people are a stubborn, stiff-necked people. (That's why there are so many Jewish chiropractors!). The Torah itself gives us that 'honored' title, and there's one story in this week's Torah portion that really shows it.

The people in the desert had been eating this magical, heavenly bread called “manna” for quite some time. The manna was amazing stuff - whatever food or drink you wanted it to taste like, that's exactly how it tasted! (Unless, of course, you wanted it to taste like a cheeseburger – in which case it would explode!). It fell around the camp six days a week, except Shabbos, and there was always exactly enough for each family's needs.

And yet, in spite of this, we find the Jews complaining bitterly to G-d that the manna is not good enough. In Numbers 11:4, the people say, "Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the manna!"

Human nature is truly amazing. The Jews were persecuted and worked like slaves by the Egyptians for over 200 years - even their children were thrown into the Nile - but all they remember is a little (gefilte) fish that the Egyptians gave them free of charge! What is it inside of us Jews that gets us so excited when we get a $500 outfit in the department store at half-price, or free tickets to Disneyland? Sometimes we act just like our ancestors did in the desert. We'll get up at 6:00 in the morning and schlep all the way out to an outlet in G-d-knows-where just to get 30% off on a toaster oven!

Rashi comments on this verse that, in reality, the Jews didn't get anything for free from the Egyptians. They had to work like dogs just to get a little food to eat. What the Jews who complained really meant was that the food in Egypt was free in the sense that it came without any obligation to perform mitzvos (commandments).

You see, Judaism teaches that there are two worlds - This World and the World to Come. In this world we work hard and do good deeds, i.e. the commandments, and we thereby earn our reward. Nothing is for free in this world. Only in the next world do we sit back and enjoy all the well-deserved pleasures G-d has in store for us. For the time being, though, we are living in a world of obligations - you know what they say …. "no tickee, no washee!"

However, inside each and every one of us is this yearning for the Next World - a time and place in which you get a free lunch, so to speak, where you don't have to work anymore to enjoy what you have. It's the real Good Life. That could be the underlying feeling of happiness (at least at the subconscious level) that we Jews have when we chance upon a bargain or a freebie – it’s a taste of the Next World in This World. But we have to remember that, ultimately, that's not what this world is about.

Many times our synagogue, or other organization, will offer an exciting and educational program or guest speaker, with a phenomenal smorgasbord to follow. Sometimes they don't even charge for it! We're tempted to go and hear the guy out, and then enjoy the sliced roast beef and potato salad. But then we decide against it. We subconsciously realize that it's not for free after all - the speaker might ask us to rethink our lives a little bit, maybe even to start attending synagogue or Torah classes or something like that – so we say to ourselves “This deli sandwich is going to cost me big time!” - and we stay away.

That was the exact feeling that our ancestors had 3300 years ago in the desert. They said, "We don't want the manna, no matter how good it tastes, so long as it comes with obligations. We want Egyptian fish, free of charge!"

The truth is, though, that as long as we are still in this world, the pathway to happiness can only be through obligations and the work that we put in, with the knowledge that all that we do now is creating our own ultimate reward in the World to Come.

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