Yesterday, All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away!
Throughout the plague of Covid-19, I often heard people saying, “I can’t wait for life to get back to normal!”
This makes me chuckle because I recall with great clarity how many of those same complainers were dissatisfied when life was “normal.” I can’t help but feel sorry and worried for those whose future is obstructed by romanticized nostalgia of a past that never was.
Firstly, the alleged “normalcy” of the past is problematic in and of itself, i.e., please define normal. Secondly, we are never going back to that world of imagined happiness. But that is nothing new. Humans tend to have the bad habit of glamorizing the past and looking at it through rose colored lenses.
In last week’s Torah portion (Bo), the Israelites were freed from slavery. Yet, it did not take long before their memories of slavery became blurred.
The Egyptians had enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labor and embittered their lives: “The Children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to G-d....” (Shemot 2:23)
G-d freed them with a mighty hand and performed numerous miracles for them. And yet, despite all the great wonders they experienced, they were extremely distressed by every challenge they faced, so much so, that they lamented ever leaving Egypt.
They cried to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us - to take us out of Egypt?" (Shemot 14:11)
In contrast to the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Israelites, once having obtained liberty, cried, “Give me slavery!”.
Servitude, after all, offers a sense of comfort. Indeed, our own habits and routines are a form of slavery. We feel safe because we know what tomorrow will look like: We went to sleep a slave; we will wake up a slave. The burden of having to challenge ourselves is muted.
Even after G-d split the Red Sea for the Israelites and smote the Egyptians, they were overwhelmed by the challenges of freedom. They recalled Egypt with nostalgia putting a new spin on their former embittered lives: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!” (Shemot 16:3).
If we don’t fight the fear of change in our lives and abandon the comfort zone, we will always be crying to return to Egypt. We will resort to choosing evil because we are more afraid to live than to die. Most of the Israelites preferred to worship Egypt’s useless G-ds of stone and to be slaves to certainty rather than to serve the Almighty in freedom and uncertainty wherein each day demanded renewed faith.
G-d did not give the Israelites enough manna from heaven to stock up their freezers for six months. They had to collect it each day anew (except Shabbat). If they saved it for the next day, it rotted, produced worms and stank.
The fate of a Jew is uncertainty except for the certainty that G-d is always with us. Unlike the Nile which irrigated all of Egypt for millennia, its little neighbor Israel still must pray daily to Hashem for rain.
Some Jews refused to leave Egypt due to their lack of faith and fear of the unknown. G-d helps us through the challenges of life, but He requires our spiritual courage. Those Jews who left Egypt were constantly tested to enable them to grow spiritually.
The Midrash relates that the Red Sea did not automatically part when the Israelites reached the Red Sea. The Israelites stood at the banks of the sea and wailed in despair. Then, Nachshon ben Aminadav courageously entered the waters. Only when the waters reached his neck did the sea part.
Our Sages teach that not only did the Red Sea part, but all the waters of the world divided. For when the Jewish people serve G-d with faith, even nature itself will override its own natural behavior to accommodate them and help them. So why are you afraid?
We have to stop sugar coating the bitter past. We have to see it for what it is and move on. We are commanded not to return to Egypt. G-d gave us the exit strategy: He split the sea before us and gave us the Book of Life, His Torah. So why are you looking backward? There is nothing left for you there! “…For the Lord said to you, ‘You shall not return that way anymore.’”
Sometimes it is not nostalgia and self-deception that keep us miserably locked in the past, but negativity. Our hearts become poisoned with it so that even if we “leave Egypt,” Egypt does not t leave us.
When we bear grudges and foster hate, they keep us imprisoned and nourish unhealthy sentiments inside of us. And so the Torah wisely commands us, even after all the Egyptians did to us, “You shall not despise an Egyptian....”
Let it go. Move on! “Do not be afraid,” the Almighty assures us. “I will go before you and fight your battles.” So just have faith in G-d and more importantly, give Him a reason to be there for you.
And as far as all those wonderful times that are gone: loves lost and people gone, jobs and youth, and days of splendor in the grass – they are no more. Let them empower you but not immobilize you. As Winston Churchill said, “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.
"Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the salvation of Hashem that He will perform for you today; for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again.” (Shemot 14:13).