So why were they so eager to leave if they got such excellent food there? Or did their memories play tricks on them? Was the food really so good? Surely slaves don’t get five-star catering! And why do they describe the fish in Egypt as chinnam – free? Wasn’t the manna in the wilderness also free? Did God send a bill for their daily supplies?
Puzzled about the word “free”; the sages asked, “If the Egyptians didn’t give them free straw to make bricks, would they give them free fish?”
Ramban says in reply that yes, the fish was free: fish were so plentiful around the Nile that the fishermen gave them away.
The sages however added something that at first puzzles us almost as much as the question: “The fish was free of mitzvot“. Was it that they could eat without making a b’rachah? Surely the rabbis meant something deeper.
One view is that as slaves they had no need to comply with the standards of civilised society. The Egyptians didn’t care whether the Israelites adhered to the rules of etiquette or good citizenship. They were nobodies after all.
But everything changed when they became God’s people. The food was still free but it wasn’t a free lunch. God looked after them as part of a covenant in which they had their part to play. They had duties to God and duties to each other.