Parashah of the week: Beha’alotecha

“We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt - the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic” Numbers 11:6


Fishy memories: the Israelites pined for the food they believed they enjoyed in Egypt (photo: Getty Images)

Our memories can play a range of diverse tricks.

This parashah introduces perhaps the major theme of much of the Book of Numbers. The Children of Israel refuse to accept the authority of Moses, challenging him with regular complaints about the unpleasantness of their desert experience.

It is without doubt that a wandering of 40 years had its real discomforts: thirst, hunger, illness, overcrowding, squabbling and a justifiable fear of the unknown future but in this verse the Children of Israel raise themselves to a new level.

They complain; they crave; and they cry but they conclude this episode with a nostalgia which is patently fictitious.

The Children of Israel have escaped slavery and oppression and it would have been most unlikely that under the power of the Egyptians they would have enjoyed any of the items on the illusory menu. It is lucky slaves who receive more than the basics of bread and water which serves to keep them alive for physical labour.

Perhaps it is natural when the going gets tough that we, human beings, turn our thoughts to a time — perhaps real but frequently imagined — when everything was better.

Yet it was a while ago that the science of psychology demonstrated that humans’ thinking and reality can be far apart. Criminologists remind us that fear of crime has little regard of actual crime; jurist warn witnesses that they cannot have “seen” the crash behind them but heard it and saw its results; and historians demonstrate that the chances of a premature end by hunger, disease or random violence are less today than at any point since humans occupied the globe.

The type of (false) nostalgia expressed by the Children of Israel probably arises out of despair, and, in a year which has seen the largest massacre of Jews since the Shoah, continuing war on the continent of Europe and an ever-expanding China, it would be understandable perhaps if we ourselves felt a little despairing.

Yet Judaism is the antithesis of despair. Its very raison d’etre is that individuals, families, communities and the thriving of the Jewish people represent a hopeful future.

As the late former United Kingdom Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote: Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of mankind.

Hope, however, is more than words. It is the call to act, to recognise that being a Jew has purpose for today and meaning in the future.

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