The Israelites are tired of manna. After years of desert deprivation they crave the variety of foods of Egypt and the certainty of life labouring for Pharaoh. Deliberately forgetting the cruelty of their enslavement, they remember only the bounty of Egypt’s garden, even though they did not enjoy its produce.
Commenting on the word “free”, Rashi observes that as Israelite enslavement became more severe, the Egyptians refused to give them the straw for the building bricks for free. If the Egyptians refused to give the Israelites the straw gratis, Rashi reasons, it is unlikely that they enjoyed fish for free. Instead, he provides an ethical interpretation: the Israelites were free of the obligations of Torah.
In bondage, the Israelites were not required to think independently or take responsibility. Once liberated, the experience of the desert is God’s hothouse for teaching the Israelites to live together under the legal and moral restrictions of Torah. The years in Sinai provide an environment for the Israelites to experience Torah safe from hostile enemies or ruinous crop conditions.
By contrast, the Land of Israel provides no certain sanctuary from destructive forces; instead it offers freedom from slavery, the discipline of Torah as well as uncertainty of independence.
Life in Egypt? Those were the good old days. The complainers wistfully recall a past they did not know. When the present is difficult and the future seems frighteningly complex, we are susceptible to idealising times past.
Torah teaches our sacred history but with the promise of the Land of Israel, it asks us to learn from the lessons of the past so that we can imagine a future in which we build a just society together.
The complainers are not criticising the monotony of manna, rather food substitutes for deeper fears and concerns about entering the Land of Israel.