The other day in shul I quipped that if one wanted to name Sefer B’Midbar according to its main theme, The Book of Complaints would probably be better than The Book of Numbers. Throughout the book, the Israelites complain, mainly about their food. Their complaints include a lack of meat, to which God responds by sending them quail
that was either so bad or so plentiful that it’s referred to as a ‘plague’ and indeed sent many Israelites to their death.
But, in addition to complaining about what they don’t have, they complain about what they used to have.
Our ancestors tell us, in this particularly odd story, that in Egypt they ate fish, watermelon, leeks, onions, and garlic… as much as they wanted. For free. Slaves. Can you believe it? I can’t. Some people have questioned exactly what foods the words are referring to. Some people have questioned what is meant by Hinam (here probably ‘free’ or ‘endless’). Those are interesting questions, but I think no matter how you translate the words, it won’t make the main problem go away: how did slaves (who, we’re told everywhere else, had it pretty bad) have it so good? Even if the food cost a modest amount, even if it weren’t all-you-can-eat, even if it were a lesser melon than the watermelon (side note: now that it’s summer, can we all agree there are few things more lovely than watermelon?)… even if we try to get rid of all the problems, it still is difficult to believe the Israelites’ depiction of their past slavery. I think this is the point.
Our memories distort the past. Sometimes they make the past worse than it was and sometimes they make it better than it was. When we complain about ‘how much better it was back then’, we tend to forget or distort the complexities of ‘back then’. When our memory forms our complaint, we are cursing ourselves. When our memory impels us to improve, we’re using it appropriately. William Faulkner said “the past is not dead; it’s not even the past”. When we think of the past as what was, we’re often misremembering and, besides, the past isn’t really what matters. When we think instead of the past (in our own lives, in our people’s history, etc) as having the power to influence what is for the better, we engage with one of the greatest concepts in Jewish tradition, turning memory into