Torah | When future is uncertain, we long for a familiar past

Beha’alotecha

Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

The leeks in Egypt were delicious. This, loosely translated, is the essence of the complaint lodged against Moses by the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. By now their bouts of complaining are hardly unique events. The pattern begins not long after the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus, as the people throw up their hands in despair and proclaim the extent to which they would welcome their own deaths. “If only we had perished in Egypt,” they would say. “If only we were to die in this wilderness!” The frequency of these verbal rebellions suggests to us that anything would be better than wandering through the unknown.

Of all such complaints, this one in Beha’alotecha is particularly striking in its imagery. The Israelites remember in mouthwatering detail the wonderful array of foods they used to eat in Egypt: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. They are contemptuous of the manna that falls at their doorstep each day, with a double portion on Shabbat. The text tells us that the manna, even though it was “the color of gum resin,” was a fine, flaky substance made into cakes that tasted like rich cream (Numbers 11:7-8). It is possible then, that they are nostalgic in these verses for more than choice tastes.

In his poem “Unmarked Boxes,” the 13th-century mystical poet Rumi writes the following: “Hear what’s behind what I say.” How might we hear what is behind what the Israelites are saying, as they reminisce about these long-ago flavors?

We miss the days in which we were stationary, the days without this arduous journey toward becoming a people. We long for a simpler time. Give us back the delicious predictability of unchanging routine. We can hardly remember who we are in this wilderness. Please, return to us a taste of who we were.

The Israelites manage to lose themselves in paroxysms of wild, savory culinary memories to the extent that they momentarily forgot that their years in Egypt had been consumed by slavery. Far from a gastronomic free-for-all, their lives had been so embittered that they cried out for redemption year after year. How could that memory ever have faded?

The extent to which retrospect can soften difficult memories, muting their harshness, is extraordinary both then and now. And if it can happen with something like centuries of forced labor, then it can certainly happen when it comes to more ordinary difficulties.

It does happen. We might remember times when our children were younger, or when we were, as simpler and better. We might pine for the days in which we had fewer responsibilities, obligations and decisions. And we might — legitimately — long to revisit parts of our lives that hold loved ones with whom we can now converse only in our pasts, our imaginations, our dreams.

What we forget, in our nostalgia for how delicious those leeks were, is that the past holds its own complications. The thing that makes Egypt ground for such intense nostalgia is that the Israelites knew how that part of their story ended. They don’t know yet where this next part will bring them. They face a mysterious future where much of what will unfold is beyond their control. How much easier it was to pine for the familiar.

What gives us real strength to bear up under these struggles though, is not romanticizing our pasts, natural as that impulse is. It is remembering just how many parts of these pasts, which now glow softly to us in retrospect, were once every bit as complicated as whatever it is we are facing today. And we emerged then … just as surely as we shall emerge now.

In the Hashkivenu, a prayer we read together in our evening liturgy, we say these words: “Ushmor tzeitenu uvo’enu lechayim uleshalom — guard our going out and our coming in, for life and peace.” May we grow in our ability to guard, and guide, our memories just as surely. May our capacity for honest reflection be nurtured, and may this lead us forward into life and peace.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at rabbigutterman@tikvah.org.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at rabbigutterman@tikvah.org.