Beha’alotecha – How good it was in Egypt

Nechama Leibowitz commented on the nostalgic yearnings for the good things in Egypt, experienced by the children of Israel as they struggled to come to terms with freedom and life in the desert. She focussed on the sentence “we remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic”. They had gone from slavery to freedom, and darkness to light, only the year before, and now they were saying “now our soul is dried away, and there is nothing at all besides this manna before our eyes”.


Nechama Leibowitz asked how the food could have been freely available when the slaves were not even given the straw to make the bricks. Nachmanides and Abravanel wrote that the fish was freely available but they conveniently forgot the terrible price they paid in terms of suffering and murder of their children. The grumblers did not realise the irony of their words. The deeper interpretation was that the food was “free of mitzvoth”. The master does not interfere in the private lives of his slaves and the more the slave is ruled by his senses, the better for the master. It is not the master’s responsibility to teach him ethics and good conduct.


When the Israelites went from slavery to freedom, another system was imposed on them, the mitzvoth imposed on them at Sinai, self discipline in the life of the community and individual, in family life, relations with neighbours, in matters of food, drink, clothing and sex. The food was free in Egypt, free from the yoke of Torah and mitzvoth, and hence the complaints.

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