There are certain parts of my past that I would like to forget. I had a wonderful childhood with loving parents and yet life has still left me with scars and wounds from failed relationships, betrayal and not making it into different teams or classes at school. No matter our upbringing we carry with us the baggage of our past experiences and sometimes they can weigh us down. Ideally, we would love to be able to forget past hurts and move on as if they never happened.
…there’s a lot of value in remembering the past – even if it is painful.
And yet there’s a lot of value in remembering the past – even if it is painful. George Santayana’s famous quote stands as an indictment against all of those who forgot not only their own past, but also history. Margaret Thatcher, for example, forgot that poll tax was one of the major causes of the Peasant’s revolt in 13801. Her own version of the tax cost her her position as Prime Minister in 1990. Similarly, in this week’s parasha, our people have a remarkable case of short term memory loss. Parashat Beha’alotcha tells the story of our people grumbling and complaining that they didn’t have good food to eat in the desert. Forgetting that they used to live as slaves, forced to build cities for the Pharaoh, they even cry out in desperation, “Why did we come out of Egypt?” (Bamidbar/Numbers 11:20). Despite God’s mercy in giving them meat to eat in the desert, some of them continue to complain and end up losing their lives. What a waste!
The mistake they made was simple. Instead of believing that the same God who brought them out of the house of slavery would also be able to care for them and provide for them in the desert, they focused on other sources of satisfaction, i.e. food. “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Fish that cost nothing? Yeah right! And also, by the way, they seem to have forgotten that they ate that food while slave drivers would whip them and tell them to hurry up and get on with their work! How quickly they forgot.
And yet how quickly we forget too. It’s so easy for us to make the very same mistake that they did and try and get satisfaction from good things (like food), but which ultimately aren’t good enough. Food and comfort, which are both good and necessary, became idols for our people in the desert because they became the main thing they desired, the main thing they lived for. They forgot their past, replaced God with food and comfort and ended up suffering as a result.
Some of our people did learn from their past and from the past of their fathers.
I am, however, glad, that they story didn’t end there. Some of our people did learn from their past and from the past of their fathers. At the end of the book of Bamidbar a new census is taken. A new generation has been born and the older generation that was forced to wander around in the desert for 40 years had died out. God, in His grace, enabled the new generation to learn from their past and the past of their people. They put their trust in God – that He was the same God who brought their fathers out of Egypt and who would bring them into the Land He promised. History repeated itself – but this time in a good way.
When Yeshua came centuries later, history repeated itself again. The Brit Hadasha mentions a few people who had learnt from the past, who had listened to the prophets and who were prepared for the coming of the Messiah (see Luke 2:22-40), but the majority of our people (including, initially, Yeshua’s disciples) missed the boat. The elite were focused on keeping power and getting as much money as possible, while the normal people were looking for a Messiah who could overthrow the Romans – a good desire in itself perhaps, but missing the point of the Messiah’s coming. Whether power, money or freedom, we were looking to other things to satisfy us, rather than God – the source of all life.
What about today? History repeats itself yet again. Today, we make the same mistake and neglect God’s offer of forgiveness, love and freedom through Yeshua in favour of other things which are good and right, but which can never give us what we truly desire – peace. With a restored relationship to God because of Yeshua dying for us, we can face the problems of our past and learn from them. From a new perspective, sometimes we are even able to see how God used these problems to draw us to Him.
So, history comes and goes and it really does repeat itself. Are we willing to learn from it? Are we willing to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than repeating them and making them our own? Or will we fail to take heed of the warnings?