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Looking Back with Longing
The Children of Israel were plagued with doubt, they wanted to know with certain evidence that they would be safe trusting only in G-d, and taking refuge in His Presence.


At last, the Children of Israel were on the road to freedom.  From the onset of their forty-year journey in the wilderness, there were those who cast fond glances back toward Egypt.  More than once, they spoke nostalgically of the land of their enslavement.  The contrast – and seeming paradox – is striking: On the one hand, the Children of Israel were capable of ascending to the uttermost heights of spirituality, such as the Shiras Hayam, the Song at the Sea, and the Giving of the Torah at Sinai; yet they remained capable of slipping into the mire of petty complaints, a lack of trust, and instability.   


One month after the Exodus, the Children of Israel ate the last crumbs of unleavened bread they had brought with them from Egypt; left without provisions in the wilderness, they accused Moshe: “You have taken us to this wilderness to kill this entire community with starvation!“ (16:3).


 A short time later, the people complained once more. Their water-skins were empty, and the dry, barren desert loomed ominously before them: “The people complained to Moshe, ‘Why did you take us up from Egypt? To kill me and my children… of thirst?’” (Ex. 17:3). 


Even the taste of a midday course of meat was recalled by some, who now whined for food.  Cruel, tyrannical Egypt had suddenly become a beloved land: “Why have you sent us out from Egypt?” (Ex. 17:3). Oh! Would it be that we could have stayed! 


A little dose of “selective memory”, and all the suffering in Egypt, all the decrees, torture and agony, seemed to vanish from their consciousness.  The collective memory of the Children of Israel recalled only the idyllic picture of a peaceful meal, “When we sat around a pot of meat and ate bread” (Ex. 16:3).


This week’s Torah portion also records the Heavenly response to the people’s various complaints.  It describes water that flowed from the rock, bread that descended from the Heavens every day in the Wilderness, and flocks of quail that swarmed around the encampment to provide meat. 


Despite the fulfillment of their wishes in so dramatic and unusual a manner, even these Heaven-sent bounties did not arouse a sense of gratitude in the hearts of those who tended to grumble and complain.  Instead, some of the people constantly tested G-d.  The Children of Israel were plagued with doubt, they wanted to know with certainty, “Whether or not G-d is in our midst” (Ex. 17:7).  They sought tangible evidence that they would be safe  trusting only in G-d, and taking refuge in His Presence.


The Torah did not record these events in order that later generations might pass judgment on the generation of the Exodus.  On the contrary, we stand in awe of these spiritual giants whose greatness we cannot fathom, must less measure and criticize.  The very fact that they merited so miraculous a redemption, and seven weeks later, received the Torah at Mount Sinai, is ample testimony to their righteousness.


 Why, then, does the Torah record these incidents?  Because they teach us important lessons relevant to our own times and experiences.


The opening verse of the Torah portion reveals part of the dilemma:


“And it was, when Pharaoh sent the people out, G-d did not lead them through the land of the Philistines… For He said… lest they encounter battle and return to Egypt” (Ex. 13:17)

Fear of battle is natural and legitimate.  Even so, peace-loving nations must sometimes resort to force in order to defend their freedom.  At such times, they require a deep inner resolve to overcome the natural fear of war.  Readiness to do battle in pursuit of freedom is a sign of national vitality and vibrancy. On the other hand, lethargy, submission, and desertion in the battlefield are sure signs of demoralization and the death of a nation. 

Thus, we are left to question how it could be that at the very inception of their nationhood, the People of Israel’s national spirit was so weak that some of them preferred tyrannical, heartless enslavement in Egypt to an armed conflict with their enemy.

How could it be? The very people who were witness to one of the stormiest periods in world history, which culminated in their momentous Exodus from Egypt, were not prepared to defend all they had attained through their emancipation!


Just days before the Exodus, the Plague of the Firstborn (every firstborn in Egypt was smitten at the same moment) had again demonstrated G-d’s omnipotence to the Children of Israel.  Why did they not believe with perfect faith that G-d would stand by their side, even in the battles they might face on the way to Canaan?

The answer to these questions lies in the complexities of human character. The Israelites who left Egypt had not succeeded in completely erasing the impression hundreds of years of slavery had etched upon their psyche.  They undoubtedly took much inspiration from the supernatural events they experienced before and during the Exodus and the splitting of the Sea.  These miracles energized their spirits, convinced them intellectually, and even touched them emotionally.  However, the events of the Exodus lasted only one year; as such, they could not eradicate the scars that decades of Egyptian subjugation and oppression had engraved on the very core of their character as a nation.

Generations of Israelites grew up as slaves; their demeaning servitude imprinted itself deeply into their souls.  Even the once-in-a-lifetime events of the Exodus were not powerful enough to overwrite the slave mentality completely.    It was only an extended period of slow and intentional re-education that would suffice to divest the nation of the mindset of enslavement.


This explains the apparent contradictions in the behavior of the Children of Israel: the vacillations between the fear of mortals and trusting faith in G-d; the desire for spiritual purity on the one hand, and servitude, free from any responsibilities, on the other; petty complaints versus the longing to dwell once again in their own homeland, where their forefathers had been born.


Indeed, there were those of the generation of the Exodus who did not attain complete spiritual redemption.  A trace of Egyptian servitude remained in their hearts.  Therefore, this generation, great as it was, was destined to die in the Wilderness, thus making way for a new generation, unfettered by memories of enslavement, and steadfast in its trust in G-d. 


This new generation was born, “incubated” and trained in the Wilderness, with daily bread from Heaven and water from the rock; as such, it was they who were sufficiently imbued with faith in their Creator to conquer the Land of Canaan and reclaim it as the Land of Israel.


Adapted from Parashah uFishrah by Rabbi Moshe Grylack

Prepared in English by: Moshe Armel


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