Beha’alotcha: Taking Responsibility

Taking Responsibility

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge…” (Num 11:5)

In Torah portion Beha’alotcha, the Israelites complain to Moses about their menu options in the wilderness. God provides delicious manna from heaven for them to eat every day, but these former slaves long for meat and other dishes they consumed in Egypt. Their ingratitude to God is startling, and so is the way they characterize the food they ate while enslaved: “free of charge.” Did they not endure back-breaking labor in order to receive basic sustenance from their Egyptian taskmasters? How can food given to a slave be considered “free of charge?”

Medieval commentator Rashi (1040-1105) interprets “free” in this context to mean “free of the obligation to follow God’s laws.” More specifically, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman (1914-2017) explains that “eating for free” means eating without being obligated to say a bracha (blessing) first. But what’s the big deal? Saying a simple blessing before we eat takes only seconds, and infuses Godliness into the most mundane aspects of our lives. A traditional Jew says approximately 100 blessings a day, creating a constant appreciation of God’s kindnesses to us.

However, saying blessings over food requires diligence, awareness, and intentionality. We must stop for a moment before slaking our hunger to think about what we are eating and where it came from. The Israelite former slaves missed the days when they didn’t have to take responsibility for their choices or actions. 

For those of us who choose a path of traditional Jewish observance, whether through teshuvah (returning to our roots) or conversion, it can be difficult to adjust to a new reality that requires much more from us. It’s certainly easier to eat and do what we want without stopping to think about our Creator. But we choose this often-challenging path because of the monumental reward: a life of purpose, joy, and connection to the Holy One.

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