In the sixth Aliyah of our Parsha (11:5-6) B’nei Yisrael recall longingly the foods they ate in Mitzrayim.
זכרנו את הדגה אשר נאכל במצרים חנם את הקשאים ואת האבטחים ואת החציר ואת הבצלים ואת השומים ועתה נפשנו יבשה אין כל בלתי אל המן עינינו,
“We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all besides the manna before our eyes.”
Rav Druk (in his sefer Eish Tamid) references Rashi who is disturbed by the phrase אשר נאכל במצרים חינם “that which we ate for nothing”. He questions how is this possible, the Egyptians would not even provide the basic materials needed for all the back breaking work that B’nei Yisrael had to do, yet their fish came free of charge?
Answers Rashi, the fish was free in the sense that B’nai Yisrael were חינם מן המצוות, at the time they were not obligated in the mitzvot, so they consumed fish while “free from the commandments”. It is quoted in the name of the Vilna Gaon that there is a midrash that B’nai Yisrael ate fish in Mitzrayim that tasted like the Leviathan, the very fish the righteous will eat from in the future.
Interestingly, our posuk uses the word נאכל, we will eat (future tense), as opposed to אכלנו – we ate (past tense). This change in tense gives room for the GRA’s explanation, that the fish which ultimately לעתיד לבוא – in the time to come – which we will get to eat, we ate for free in Egypt, without earning it. As Rashi pointed out we did not yet have the mitzvot which would allow us to “earn” the fish eventually. This explains B’nai Yisrael’s comment, but the question we need to ask is how is earning the fish of the Leviathan better than getting the taste of fish like the Leviathan for free? Who wouldn’t want a freebie?
In order to suggest an answer to this, let us look at the opening of the Aliyah (10:35-36):
ויהי בנסוע הארון ויאמר משה קומה ה’ ויפצו אויביך וינסו משנאיך מפניך ובנחה יאמר שובה ה’ רבבות אלפי ישראל And it came to pass when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, ‘rise up HaShem, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you’, and when it (the ark) rested he said ‘return HaShem to the ten thousand thousands of Yisrael’
These verses are recited when we take out and return the Torah in shul, but what are the phrases themselves speaking about? The ark contains our Luchot upon which the Aseret HaDibrot are written, it very much is the vessel that represents the Torah. The Torah travels with us, guiding us when we set out as well as when we return – at any point in our journeys the Torah is what is leading us.
My great grandfather HaRav Elazar Mayer Preil zt”l writes in his sefer, HaMaor, that we are normally accustomed to rebuking our nation to “keep the Torah”, “observe the mitzvot”, however, these are inaccurate statements. We don’t guard the Torah and mitzvot, they guard us! The Torah is what is protecting and saving us, as it says earlier in verse 33:
וארון ברית ה’ נוסע לפניהם…לתור להם מנוחה
and the ark of the covenant of HaShem went before them…to search out a resting place for them.
The nation was not finding a resting place for the Aron, the ark was leading B’nai Yisrael to a resting place! The verses of ויהי בנסוע are distinct because of the inverted nuns found encasing them. The letter nun teaches us about a joint effort; נלך, נרוץ, נכתוב, נסע, נעמוד, נפעל, וכו – we will go, we will run, we will write, we will travel, we will stand, we will take action etc. Perhaps one thinks their connection to Torah is unilateral, what I must do, what I must observe, however, in reality, it is upside down nuns; the relationship is inverted, the Torah is what protects and guides us properly.
Let us return to the fish being acquired for free in Egypt without us earning it and deserving it. Although tasty and the right price, this fish has not been acquired and therefore its service is limited. When the righteous will merit eating from the Leviathan, which comes through observance of mitzvot, we truly see how the mitzvot keep us and protect us so that we reap rewards that are hard earned.
As we head into our final full week at Midreshet HaRova for the Northern Hemisphere Class of 5783, let us hope that all the work we have put into learning, davening and touring Eretz Yisrael, which we have had the privilege to experience this year, will serve in turn to protect us in our travels going forward bezH’.