If the books of the Torah were named for the content of their stories then the Book of Numbers would be called Complaints. The Jewish people spend the better part of this book complaining, and even rebelling.
“The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. The whole community shouted at them: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt. If only we might die in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14)
What precipitates their griping? It is not the demanding conditions of the wilderness with its lack of water. It is not that they have to eat the same meal day in and day out (manna!). It is instead that the scouts have just returned from reconnoitering the land.
All but Joshua and Caleb offer a negative report. The scouts cry out: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Here the people’s complaining reaches a crescendo.
God loses patience. It is at this moment that a brief journey is transformed into forty years of wandering. God decrees that the generation who went free from Egypt must die in the wilderness. Only those who were born in freedom will be privileged to cross into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb are the only exceptions because they bring a positive report.
The people, however, are terrified: “’Why is the Lord taking us into the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back to Egypt.’”
Can a slave ever truly appreciate freedom? Do memories of persecution and terror overwhelm their psyches? God’s response suggests that such memories are impossible to overcome. The people see overwhelming odds and respond, “We should go back.” Let us turn around. Let us go back to yesterday.
How many times do we fall victim to mythologizing the past?
It was so much better when the Jews lived in the shtetl. There, everyone, was certain about their Jewish identities; everyone attended synagogue on a regular basis. Then the Jewish people were not divided by ideologies.
Once I asked my beloved Nana about her memories of her shtetl outside of Bialystok. “It was awful,” she responded. I continued my query. (Imagine that!) “Yes, I know you had little food, but didn’t everyone get along better because it was such a small town.” And my Nana looked at me as if I was crazy but she would never shout at her grandson and say, “Are you nuts?” Instead she said, “Steven, we were fighting for food. And we were always nervous that the Cossacks might come and kill us. That doesn’t bring out the best in people.”
And no matter how delicious the meal or how expensive the restaurant, she always offered this report: “It was tasty.” That’s what food meant to her. Meals did not earn stars or accolades. She would of course offer praise for my mother’s cooking but that was more about praising her daughter than the taste of the food.
The memories of trouble and deprivation had forever diminished her taste buds. She could never become a foodie.
And yet she never wanted to go back to that shtetl. She never wished to turn back the clock. She never sought to return to the land of her childhood.
This is why. As petite as she was, she never saw herself as a grasshopper. And thus the most remarkable of all the Israelites’ gripes are the words “And so we must have looked to them.”
The reason why the memories of persecution did not overwhelm my Nana is because she never thought much about how others saw her. Success is really about self-image.
Realizing your promise is really about how tall you see yourself.