What if an ungrateful assembly marched through the wilderness, prepared to turn its back on freedom if the diet provided in servitude could be guaranteed a la carte.
One of the strengths of the biblical narrative is that it does not ignore the weaknesses of its characters.
In our portion we read of the people described as “murmurers” complaining, “Would that we were given flesh to eat. We remember the fish we were wont to eat in Egypt for naught, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onion and the garlic.”
The text is puzzling. We know that they had cattle for food, yet their memories were of free fish and vegetables; but this could only have been a figment of their imagination, since even straw could be obtained by hard labor.
The Israelites, therefore display “selective memory” out of fear and lack of hope in regard to the future. Without memory, we have no real identity, since only through memory our past is constructed to know who we really are.
Without memory obviously there is no human culture or education process, because generations do not live simply in the isolation of their own limited experience. They inherit all that has gone before.
But in our story, the memory of the free Israelites in the desert is negative, even destructive. When difficulty comes, they look nostalgically on their days in Egypt, remembering the food but not the lashes, the oppression, the lack of freedom.
Their memories become an accusation against Moses, indeed, against God, as they bring tragedy upon themselves. They become the generation in the wilderness, destined to wander for 40 years, never to arrive, never to inherit, because of their distorted vision.
We too, living in a free country, see that memory can be both good and bad. We can look back to previous Jewish generations’ lives in the ghettos with nostalgia. But we tend to forget the hardships. We forget the strings and arrows of those difficult times.
Trying to bring back the “good old days” does little more than allow us to live in an unreal dream world.
It is our call, living today in a free society, to accept the responsibility of that freedom. We can learn from the past, but we must live in the present for the future.
The Israelites of the desert remind us of the destructive nature of selective memory. Let us learn from their experience so that our future sees us moving forward and not backward.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)