It is the nature of human beings to look on the past with nostalgia. Often, we do so in a very selective manner, remembering the good and pleasant, and conveniently forgetting or ignoring the sad and unpleasant experiences. This is especially true in our time, when sections of the Jewish world, especially within the society of Orthodox Jews who descended from Eastern European ancestors, paint the narrative of life in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries as rosy and, in the main, fanciful.
It attributes all of the current divisions and conflicts; the appalling decline in the population of Jews in the Diaspora due to intermarriage and assimilation and the continued strength of liberal secularism throughout the Jewish world, to forces over which we had no control and which pushed much of the Jewish world to stray from the proper path of traditional Jewish life and values.
This narrative essentially holds traditional orthodoxy blameless for what occurred in the Jewish world over the past three centuries. It glosses over the failings of Eastern European Jewish society, its poverty and terrible living conditions and the viciously disruptive disputes, both ideological and personal that wracked the world of Eastern European Jewry. By so doing, it allows many of those failings and unnecessary disputes to continue to linger even in our current society and in a world far removed from the conditions of Eastern European Jewry three centuries ago.
The Torah presents for us in this week’s reading an accurate recall of the places and events that were part of the story of the Jewish people during their 40-year sojourn in the desert of Sinai. As Rashi points out, it is illustrative of a father reviewing a past trip with his child. He points out that here you had a headache, here we encountered unexpected difficulties, here we had a life-changing experience and here is where our extended trip ended. The detailed description, the listing of all the different places in the desert, many of which are still not completely known to us and identifiable, is meant to sharpen our memory as to what exactly happened to our ancestors when they left Egypt and set out on their historic journey to enter the land of Israel.
The Torah is aware of the dangers of nostalgia and of the distorted picture of events that it can and usually does present of past events and personages. This week’s reading is a wake-up call to the generation of the desert of Sinai and to all later generations of the Jewish people as to the dangers of ignoring reality and taking comfort in false narratives of past events.
Eastern European Jewish society had greatness within it and for 800 years was the wellspring of Ashkenazic Jewish scholarship, society and culture. All of this is to be remembered and treasured. But the picture is never always one-sided, and memory and recognition of what went wrong is also in order and necessary.
Rabbi Berel Wein