Making Sense of the Sedra: Beha’Alotcha

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Making Sense of the Sedra: Beha’Alotcha

What's the Torah's view on looking back to the good old days?

Gathering of the manna
Gathering of the manna

The cost of petrol keeps rising, with a full tank now costing at least £100 for the average car. As this fuel crisis deepens, many are looking back in nostalgia to the days when a tank cost less than half of what we are currently paying. What is the Torah’s view on looking back with nostalgia to the ‘good old days’?

In this week’s Torah portion we are told about the rabble who complained about the constant diet of manna that they were receiving in the desert. These people looked back on their existence as slaves in Egypt and preferred it to their current status. They complained: “We remember the fish that we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, and the leeks and the melons. Now our souls are empty, it is only to the manna that we look”. Rashi understands that their rosy memories of the past in Egypt were manufactured. If Pharaoh would not even give them the straw that they needed for bricks, why on earth would he give them food? Rather, says Rashi, they were looking for an excuse to complain about their treatment by the Almighty.

If you were to ask an Israelite in the wilderness whether he was lying, I am sure that he would deny such a claim vociferously. They must have truly believed that this was how they were fed – with fish, leeks and watermelons. Perhaps this shows the strength of having rose-tinted glasses. When we are dissatisfied with our present we are so sure that things were better in our past that our mind creates scenarios that prove how much better things used to be, even if they never happened.

This occurrence is actually a psychological phenomenon called rosy retrospection, a cognitive bias when looking at the way we think about our lives now, in comparison to the past. In fact, some scientists suggest that because the past is seen as being better than the present, the present and future must be much worse, leading to a mindset that while things were wonderful in the past, things are now going from bad to worse. If we look in the verse in this week’s Torah portion this is exactly what happens. They no longer have their imagined food, now, they have the manna, which may have been the beginning of the end. Nachmanidies comments that this complaint wasn’t even that the manna didn’t taste as good as the food that they ate in Egypt. Instead, they were commenting that the manna itself was an uncertain commodity. If it came today, who is to say what would come next? They felt unsure of their future survival, never certain that they would have food.

The uncertainty about their next meal equates to a high level of stress that the Israelites were experiencing. The manna’s arrival at their doorstep was not something over which they had any agency. This could have led them to make the complaint to Moses, and to doubt that God had their best interests at heart.

Perhaps the lesson from this episode is to understand that we need to look objectively at our lives and see that while things may be more expensive, that doesn’t mean that everything is beyond salvation. It requires management of our stress, and that may enable us to see more clearly in our lives.

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