Complaining to Moshe, the Israelites cry out that they remember the fish served to them in Egypt that they received without price, “hinam” (Numbers 11:5).
Could they really have received food with no strings attached? After all, these are the same Egyptians who refused to even give the Jewish slaves straw for bricks. As the Midrash asks: “If they wouldn’t give them straw for naught, would they have given them fish for naught?”
The Ramban believes this certainly was possible because at the riverside, the Jews would be given small fish that had no value in the eyes of the Egyptians.
Ibn Ezra reflects this line of reasoning but adds that the term “hinam” should not be taken literally – it should be understood to mean inexpensive. They received fish at bargain basement prices.
Rashi offers a most insightful answer to this question. “Hinam,” says Rashi, means “free of mitzvot .” In Egypt, without the commandments the Jews felt unencumbered; they were free to do as they pleased. After the giving of the Torah, with all of its prohibitive laws, the Jews felt there were strings attached as they felt restricted.
This seems to make sense. Freedom and limitation are antithetical. If, for example, I’m not allowed to eat a particular food, my options are severely narrowed and no longer am I feeling “hinam” or free.
However, there is another way of understanding the presence of the commandments. The mitzvot, even the laws that seem to be the most restrictive, can often teach self-discipline. Self-discipline is a passageway to freedom. Limitation is, therefore, a conduit to freedom.
Additionally, we commonly associate freedom with the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Freedom is not only the right to say yes, it is the ability to say no. If I cannot push away a particular food, my physical urges may have unbridled freedom, but my mind is enslaved. What appears to be a clear green light can sometimes turn out to be the greatest of burdens.
The opposite is also true. What appears to be a burden can often lead to unlimited freedom. A story illustrates this point. When God first created the world, the birds were formed without wings. They complained to God: “We’re small and feel overpowered by the larger animals.” God responded: “Have patience, you’ll see.”
In time, God gave the birds wings. The complaining intensified. “It’s worse than ever,” cried the birds. “Until now we were all small but still quick enough to elude the animals of prey. Now we have these appendages by our side and we feel weighed down.”
God gently took the birds and taught them how to fly high and then higher. They were able to reach above the clouds and escape all threats from their animal adversaries.
The mitzvot are like the wings of the Jew. When not understood fully, they can make us feel stifled and weighed down. Yet when explored deeply and given significance, they provide new ways of looking at the world and looking at ourselves. They teach us meaning and self-discipline. With these gifts we then can truly fly high and far; we then can truly be free or “hinam.”