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Dream Bigger Than Cucumbers

June 13, 2020

About 15 years ago, I heard the perfect metaphor to understand why Bnai Yisrael complained so much in the desert. R. Yosef Hendler, at the time the assistant Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Shaalvim, shared a memory from when he was a young boy. It was Erev Pesach, and he and his grandmother were preparing the horseradish to be used for the seder that night. When his grandmother sliced the horseradish, a little worm crawled out. Stunned, the innocent young boy asked, “Why would a worm choose to live in a bitter horseradish? Wouldn’t it be so much more pleasant to live in an apple, a strawberry, or a plum?” (Sorry if you’re reading this during Shabbat lunch and I just ruined dessert.) To which his grandmother responded: “To the worm, the horseradish is the sweetest thing in the world.”

We all know that Bnai Yisrael complained a lot in the desert. (Of course, if we were there, we wouldn’t have complained at all, and just been happy with what we had! Sure.) But there is a particularly jarring passage in our parsha that really challenges us to understand the root of Bnai Yisrael’s concerns:

זָכַ֙רְנוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּגָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נֹאכַ֥ל בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם חִנָּ֑ם אֵ֣ת הַקִּשֻּׁאִ֗ים וְאֵת֙ הָֽאֲבַטִּחִ֔ים וְאֶת־הֶחָצִ֥יר וְאֶת־הַבְּצָלִ֖ים וְאֶת־הַשּׁוּמִֽים. וְעַתָּ֛ה נַפְשֵׁ֥נוּ יְבֵשָׁ֖ה אֵ֣ין כֹּ֑ל בִּלְתִּ֖י אֶל־הַמָּ֥ן עֵינֵֽינוּ.

We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Bamidbar 11:5-6)

Remember, our Sages teach that the taste of the manna was whatever you wished. (Though see Rashi on these verses, as he cites a Midrash that claims that the manna could not taste like the fruits and vegetables mentioned here.) Also remember- in Egypt we were oppressed slaves! We had suffered all day, were physically and spiritually enslaved, and now we were a free people, travelling through the desert to our homeland! Why were we longing for the fish and cucumbers of Egypt, rather than enjoying our incredible new reality? This is a major question, and one that is not central only to our parsha, but, in fact, to the many times throughout the Torah that Bnai Yisrael yearn to return to Egypt, and shout complaints that in hindsight seem hard to believe. (For more examples, see: Shemot 14:11, Shemot 15:24, Shemot 16:3,  Shemot 17:2, and Bamidbar 11:1.)

I gave this question a lot of thought, and a few years ago I gathered an array of interesting answers that I complied into an essay. But after that I realized that my favorite answer is the simplest one. It is normal human psychology to long for, and run to, what we are used to. It probably comes from our innate instinct of self preservation. If we have lived or survived in a particular situation, even if just barely, we often prefer the familiarity, and even relative safety of that place, rather than try something new, even if that new place could ultimately be a far better existence. Remember what happened to Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption when he was paroled after 50 years in prison? It’s not easy to leave a place where you have lived for a long time, even a terrible existence, and learn to adjust to a new reality.

This can also give insight into next week’s parsha, Parshat Shlach, when the spies return with a mostly negative report of the land of Israel. The fear and anxiety of entering a new land, and the responsibilities that come along with building a new society, were far too daunting for a nation that had become accustomed to living a lifestyle of servitude for over two centuries.

So does it make sense that Bnai Yisrael’s instinct is to run back to Egypt, and to yearn for the fish of the Nile and the Egyptian cucumbers? Well, it makes as much sense as Brooks wishing to return to jail, or the worm choosing to grow old in his horseradish. So in a word, yes; it makes perfect sense.

The truth is that we all experience this in our lives. Whether it is a major life decision like getting married or changing jobs, or one more minor, like committing to daily Torah learning, resolving to regular exercise, or signing up to volunteer- our instincts often tell us to run to what’s familiar, even if it’s to a place that deep down we know is not our best choice.

Bnai Yisrael were scared and wary of encountering the unexpected and unfamiliar. Egypt, as terrible as it was, had become home. Next time that you have the idea or inspiration to try something new, and then you immediately feel some self-imposed pushback or deterrence, take a moment to contemplate: am I too nervous to bite into the miraculous manna, and instead am choosing to run back to my cucumbers? Don’t hide in your horseradish. Take the plunge into a new endeavor, and you’ll soon discover just how sweet it is.

Rabbi Fox

Tue, August 3 2021 25 Av 5781