Chadeish yameinu k'kedem, "Renew our days as of old." (Lamentations 5:21)
Perhaps not as dramatic as "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear" (from the opening sequence of The Lone Ranger), but the sentiment is the same. A nostalgia for a time gone by. The good old days. Simply put, the past was better than the present.
It's a common theme for the wilderness generation. Recently freed of an oppressive existence, but one nonetheless characterized by certainty, the Israelites are hard-pressed to adjust to the uncertainty of freedom. From the very moment of their redemption at the sea, they yearn for the clarity of the past. Whether it is a lack of water or food or a wanting for a more varied diet, they complain. They grumble. In time, they will even rebel. And throughout it all, their mantra is a constant: life was better in Egypt.
It begins with what Rabbi Moshe Woldoks has taught was the beginning of Jewish humor: "Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11). Along the way, as with so many manipulative complainers, it turned to the melodramatic: "If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt . . ." (Exodus 16:3) to "Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us . . .? (Exodus 17:3). But over time, and particularly as we enter the Book of B'midbar, the essence of the kvetching turns the yearning for return into something well beyond a romanticization of the past. The nostalgia crosses into the surreal, the absurd, even the shameful. Egypt is remembered for its good food, ". . . the fish . . . the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic" (Numbers 11:5). And the worst, at least to my eyes, comes in this week's reading when Dathan and Abiram pose the heretical: "Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey . . . ?" (Numbers 16:13).
The equating of Egypt with the Land of Israel is more than just poetic license, as if they were just trying to be sarcastic. Theirs was the perversion of memory. As with the revisionist historians of today, with Holocaust deniers and those who distort the past for their own benefit, the sin of those rebels was much deeper than the story suggests. This was a watershed moment for that generation. They can be forgiven their insecurities, their inability to adapt to their new state of being. But by comparing the flesh pots of Egypt with the Land of Israel they are dismissing the holiness of that Promised Land and the holiness of the One who makes it holy. To call Egypt "a land flowing with milk and honey" is to mock the entire purpose of the redemption. The result? A complete reversal of the parting of the sea. Just as God had delivered them from Egypt by upending the laws of nature and splitting the waters, so their demise results in their being swallowed through the opening of the earth.
Clearly they have missed the point of Yetziat Mitzrayim—the coming out of Egypt. They have failed to learn the lessons of the past. But how to constructively deal with this inability to maintain perspective, how to ensure that the things we would rather forget are remembered? The parashah now transitions from the bastardization to the preservation of memory.
In a section of the text that often gets overshadowed by the rebellion and subsequent punishment of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram, God now commands that the fire pans of "those who have sinned . . . be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar . . . and let them serve as a warning to the people . . ." (Numbers 17:3). This is more than just a symbolic gesture. The altar, for all intents and purposes, is the juncture between God and Israel. There is no avoiding this place. It is encountered multiple times every day. And it is covered with a graphic reminder of all that remains of those who rebelled to whomever should wish to approach God. These were their fire pans, perhaps the most sacred instruments of ritual in ancient Israel.
No one likes to be reminded about the failures and pains of the past. Our psyches go to great lengths to cover up and to sublimate that which we would rather forget. We instinctively want (and often need) to restructure the past in ways that allow us to move forward. But there are some things that need remembering. There are some moments in history and some moments in our own lives that we must remember as they were. Without sugarcoating.
Rabbi Shira Stern once offered a beautiful teaching on the Ark of the Covenant and how it was that it contained not only the Ten Commandments, but also the remnants of the first set of tablets that Moses destroyed. And her point was simple: Just as the Israelites had to carry the shattered pieces of the original set of commandments throughout all their journeys, so we must carry our own brokenness with us wherever we go. There's no good in pretending it never happened, or trying to remember it as better than it actually was.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, writes that "memory is the most fragile and capricious of our faculties."1 Indeed. And well we know that there are some things we would rather forget. But if there's one thing we Jews have learned and embraced as mitzvah, it is the holiness of remembering. This is an essential part of the lesson of the story of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram. There's a reason we read it every year. Like the plating of the altar with their fire pans, it comes as a constant reminder that some things must be remembered exactly for what they were.
1. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1982), p. 5
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
How can we truly understand the slave mentality, we who have known nothing but gratuitous freedom in twenty-first century Western civilization? When Korach's cohorts, Dathan and Abiram call Egypt a land of milk and honey (Numbers 16:13), the Torah isn't trying to show us how blasphemous they are. To ascribe to them the snide, self-aggrandizing, deliberate perversion of a Holocaust denier is to assume they really understood the awesome opportunity and responsibility of sovereignty that awaited them on the other side of the Jordan River.
The previous portion, Sh'lach L'cha, has already made it clear that this entire slave generation (save Caleb and Joshua) is completely unable to see their destiny for what it is. The plentiful bounty of the Land of Israel is overwhelming; where we would see a Whole Foods produce section, they see only danger. The result of a lifetime in the narrow place (Mitzrayim, Egypt, meaning narrowness) is that one's mind, heart, and imagination are constricted. The notion of freedom and plenty encapsulated by the phrase "milk and honey" has no meaning to the newly liberated Israelites.
The Israelites are terrified. One who has known only servitude fears his master, but he fears the absence of his master even more. This is the fear of Korach's gang, and it is all-encompassing; when they are swallowed up by the earth, it is a manifestation of the fear that consumes them.
Viewed this way, Korach's gang deserves not only judgment, but also compassion. They are liberated, but they are never freed from their constricted consciousness. They can't learn from their past because they can't imagine a different future. We who have been blessed to live with freedom as our default mode and the air we breathe have both the privilege and the responsibility to transcend our narrow places and aim higher.
Rabbi Jay Henry Moses is Director of the Wexner Heritage Program at the Wexner Foundation in Columbus, Ohio.
Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914