The Bad Ol’ Days: Shelakh Lekha 2020

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Why do we tend to look back at the past in an oversimplified manner? Is it because we can’t remember enough details to recall the nuances of past days? Or is it because we prefer to ignore such nuances?

Upon hearing negative perspectives about the Promised Land, the Israelites suddenly see slavery in Egypt as a preferable option:

The Pitch: “‘Why is the Lord taking us to 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!” – Numbers 14:3

Swing #1: “The catastrophe of the narrative of the spies is conveyed through the imagery of ‘falling.’ They complain of a destiny, in which any claim to vertical stature will be doomed.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire

Swing #2: “[The Israelites] do not deny God directly, but by impugning the leadership of Moses they imply a deception. … This makes sense, if leaving Egypt behind meant also leaving behind the magic that liberated them from Egypt. If God (or Moses) is not a magician, He (or he) may be a seducer or a deceiver.” – Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Numbers”, from Congregation, David Rosenberg, ed. 

Swing #3: “They thought that these present troubles were all retribution for the abominable things they had been doing while in Egypt, or on account of some other cause they were not aware of which had caused God to hate them. ” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: In what ways do our commentators believe that the Israelites are misremembering Egyptian bondage? In what ways might the Israelites’ reaction seem reasonable? How do contemporary matters obscure our understanding of the past? How can we reclaim historical clarity, especially on events like Juneteenth which illuminate our modern need for racial justice?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Next week will be my final set of classes for Emanu-El; I invite you to tune in to Judaism 101 on Tuesday at 8:00PM, Lunchtime Torah on Wednesday at 12 noon, and Virtual Danish & D’rash on Wednesday at 7:00PM. The synagogue website includes links to register if you haven’t already done so.

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!