"We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic."
At what point is nostalgia transformed from a harmless bout of of wistful reverie to a clear and present danger? Nostalgia, by definition, is an act of embellishment, accentuating the positive aspects of times past. But the embellishment must possess an element of truth. Where was the lie in the people's remembrance of their lives in Egypt? Did they not eat cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic? Of course they did. The great commentator Rashi takes issue with the expression bechinam - "for free," or "free of charge." What could they possibly be remembering he asks. The Israelite slaves were even ordered to collect on their own the straw needed for the bricks they were compelled to produce for their overlords, and we are to believe that the Egyptians provided them with food gratis? No, says Rashi, by free they meant free from responsibility for managing their own affairs as individuals and as a nation, and free of the great burden of having to uphold their Torah responsibilities. The moment that they cut themselves off from the Torah of G-d's trust in them, from the image of G-d in which they were created, and from G-d Himself, they became slaves to their base appetites, thus bringing disaster upon the nation.
Looking backwards is no way to move forward, and moving forward into the land of Israel was the preeminent task of the children of Israel as they made their way through the desert. Moving forward is also, of course, the preeminent task of life itself. The word of G-d is dynamic and fulfilling G-d's word through our words and actions is likewise dynamic and forward moving. How do we maintain our freedom from the self-destructive backwards thinking of the complainers in the desert?
Just prior to the cucumber and leek incident, the Torah reading of Beha'alotcha opens with Moshe's instructions to Aharon to kindle the menora lights. "Beha'alotcha," (ibid 8:2) commonly translated as "when you kindle," literally means, "when you cause to go upward." Moshe is telling Aharon to cause the menora lights to rise heavenward, and Torah tells us, "Vaya'as ken Aharon - and Aharon did just so." (ibid 8:3) In directing the lights upwards toward heaven, Aharon did so without hesitation or doubt, but with the great trust and confidence that informs our faith in G-d. But casting our gaze upwards, as spiritually rewarding and nourishing as that is, alone is not enough to propel us on our journey. For this we need a second type of vision.
The ability to cast one's gaze ahead and to take the spiritual and practical steps necessary to move forward are embodied in the person of Yitro - Jethro - who makes his final Torah appearance in this week's reading. Throughout our entire acquaintance with Yitro we are witness time and again to his great ability to negotiate the steps necessary to overcome every hurdle. It is for this reason Moshe exhorts him to stay with Israel, and to "be our eyes in the desert." (ibid 10:31) Yitro had been antiquity's most acclaimed practitioner of pagan worship, yet when he came to realize the reality of the one true G-d, he at once left idolatry and all the acclaim and honor it had afforded him. Later, when he saw that his son-in-law Moshe had been charged by G-d with rescuing the Israelites from servitude, he encouraged Moshe to return at once to Egypt. When he came to meet Israel in the desert and saw the great queues of people lining up to receive Moshe's judgement, he realized at once that this method of judicial procedure was bound to wear out both Moshe and the people, and he proposed an alternative system immediately adopted by Moshe.
If we can combine the upward gaze of Aharon as he kindles the menora, embodying faith in G-d and confidence in His instruction, with the forward searching eyes of Yitro, always navigating the path advancing toward our goals, we can most certainly avoid the pitfall of the backwards looking multitude, who, fearing the challenges of the future, and the responsibilities of the present are forever bent on living a perverted memory of an inglorious past. Torah doesn't promise us a free lunch. But it does assure us that with faith and with vision, with constant effort and determination, we can get to our G-d given destination, and once there, be able to enjoy the leeks and onions of our efforts.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven talk about the generation of the desert, described in the book of Numbers. They made a lot of mistakes and at times seemed to have had a "bad attitude" about the Land of Israel. In this week's Torah portion of Behalotcha, the "rabble" even complained about the food that G-d Himself was feeding them, in preparation for entering into the Land! Who is this motley crew, and what is their problem? They're still around, complaining about the Land of Israel and sowing seeds of dissent. But our noble youth, fearless and dedicated, are prepared to go the distance for the sake of the Land of Israel.