Shabbat Shalom! My Torah portion is from the book of Numbers. At this point, the Israelites are wandering in the desert. Before this time, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. They were beaten and made to do harsh physical labor. Moses then led the Israelites to freedom with the help of God, who rained plagues on Pharaoh which, in the end, forced him to release the Israelites. They fled into the desert and had to leave with their bread unleavened because they were in such a hurry.
This is the Passover story, the one that most of us are familiar with. My Torah portion takes place after the Israelites have escaped from Egypt. While wandering in the desert, the Israelites eventually ran out of food. When they complained about how they would starve in the desert, God decided to give them Manna. The Torah says that Manna would collect on the ground like dew or frost, and would melt away when the sun heated up. The people would collect it and make bread, and they would have to eat this bread that same day because it would spoil by the next. This made them uncertain about when they would get food. But the Israelites now complained about the Manna, saying that they wanted meat. God then decided to teach them a lesson. He rained quails on top of them. In the Torah it says that even the people who gathered the least had 10 homers of quail, which is equivalent to 475 pounds, or about 1900 birds. When the people who were complaining ate the meat, they were struck with a deadly plague that killed them.
My speech today could be about their ingratitude: the Israelites were being ungrateful for the Manna that God gave them. They were getting food from heaven, but they were complaining about not having meat. But I noticed something else in the story about Manna that made me want to talk about a different topic. This is what the Torah says (and I quote): “The Israelites felt a craving for real food. They wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our throats are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but the manna to look to!”
In my opinion their complaining wasn’t just an example of ingratitude. I think it was also because of nostalgia. They were thinking that maybe Egypt wasn’t all that bad. When they were in Egypt, they would get small worthless fish that the fishermen would throw to them for helping with the nets. But they looked back on it, remembering only times when they got what they wanted, or when they were happy. Perhaps there were things to miss about their time in Egypt, like sometimes getting rewards for their labor, or being able to eat meat. But those times were few and far between, and those small benefits didn’t compare to freedom.
I think the Israelites were experiencing powerful nostalgia about having left Egypt. In the Oxford dictionary, nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Nostalgia can change your views of the past, especially when the present is so insecure. I believe the reason that they were yearning for the past was because the present time they were in wasn’t easy, so it made the time before seem better than it was. Life in the desert was incredibly hard and, on top of that, they didn’t really know where they were going and when they would get there. Maybe they missed their small freedoms, like routine, or being in one place. It is possible that in this moment, they looked back and Egypt looked better.
I‘d like to talk today about how nostalgia can affect us. I think that nostalgia has two sides, a good one and a bad one. On the good side, nostalgia can help in preserving older things, older ways of doing things, like a bar mitzvah, and keeping ways of life that are healthy for you. For example, running because you want the same physical body that you had when you were younger, or going on a diet for the same reason. Nostalgia can also help you to remember people or events that are dear to you – things you can see in photographs or in memorials, and those memories can motivate you to do similar or better things yourself.
But nostalgia can also have a bad side. It can cause you to hurt yourself trying to do things you could do before, like trying to lift too much weight when working out. In a broader sense, nostalgia can hurt other people when you try to restore something from the past that might not have been as good as you remember.
We know that nostalgia can be very intense. It can distort your view of your current situation, or it might change how you look at the thing you’re feeling nostalgic for. Maybe you can even feel nostalgic for slavery, a time that you probably had a bad experience in because the time you are in now is unpredictable, with you uncertain about what will happen next.
I have experienced this type of nostalgia as well. When I was younger, I lived in Massachusetts. I really enjoyed my life there, but eventually we moved here in 2019. The first couple years were rough, I had to deal with COVID shortly after moving. I hadn’t adjusted completely to Michigan, so I missed Massachusetts so much more. I eventually got over it, but I still sometimes look back fondly. Now I’ll be going to a completely new high school next year. This may be challenging, but like the Israelites, I have to focus on the future, not just the past, and keep moving forward.
Something I gained from this Torah portion is that nostalgia can have a big impact, both good or bad, and your perspective on the past can change without you knowing it. When you remember something, it isn’t always exactly as you thought it was. Human memories can easily be seen in a rosy light. This is something that the Israelites had to struggle with in the desert. One way for the Israelites to deal with this nostalgia was to try to remember their goals, and to focus on the future, not the past. Their lives in the desert might be very painful for them. But, in the long run, it would bring freedom and a better life to their children and grandchildren. Even when they were nostalgic about Egypt, most of the Israelites went on. They didn’t get trapped by their memories. Instead they kept going. This was a good decision, because if they had gone back or stayed in the desert, they would have made no progress. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the Israelites could progress only moving forward and not overly thinking about the past.
Can you think of any time in your life where you have experienced nostalgia about something that you remember more fondly than it really was? How might that have affected the way you moved into the future?
So for me, that is a lesson that my Torah portion teaches. We shouldn’t forget our past, but we should also look to the future. Thank you