The Good Old Days Weren’t Always Good

Reading the Torah from the second half of Exodus through Deuteronomy could be summarized in six sentences: God complains about the Israelites, the Israelites complain about God, God complains about Moses, Moses complains about God, the Israelites complain about Moses, and Moses complains about the Israelites. 

That certainly captures the essence of this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha’alotekha, which takes place as Moses leads the Israelites through the Sinai desert – and includes arguments about the quality of food, the effectiveness of Moses’ leadership, and even personal attacks on Moses’ wife.

Though this is far from the first time the Israelites complain, one text jumps out because of the surprising nostalgia they fall back upon:

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. No, our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11:4-6

What’s so shocking was that the Israelites were oppressed when they experienced these supposedly sumptuous meals – so much so that God finally called out to them to save them after 400 years of enslavement. And, just a few months after being freed, what they were focusing on was not the back-breaking labor and threats of infanticide, but rather, the variety of food that they used to eat! 

Nostalgia can do strange things to our minds. On a day-to-day basis, it may give us warm fuzzies as we remember the first date, our graduation, or the day we started a new job. But the Greek root of “nostalgia” cuts to the heart of the problem – it evokes “the pain of the desire of returning home,” and it’s not always a good guide to the present. When there’s an article in Scientific American saying that “we are living through a dumpster fire of a historical moment,” we need to remember that, by many metrics, this is simply not true

Not that there aren’t real problems to face in our world – there are. The problem arises when we think, “The past was so much better than the present.” It’s why slogans like “Make America Great Again” can be so compelling – it plays on a belief that things used to be good, but now we’re going to hell in a handbasket.

As psychologist Annie Duke reminds us: 

Whether or not we actually believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket isn’t just a quirky thing that happens to us as we get old and long for the good old days that really has no impact beyond the next generation rolling its eyes at the previous ones. Inaccurate beliefs about the state of the world have dangerous implications. Those biased beliefs drive poor policy decisions. They can swing elections. They are subject to manipulation by bad actors…

Nostalgia is totally real in the sense that we have an overly rosy view of what’s happened in the past, not because the good old days were actually better, but because we forget the bad stuff more than we forget the good stuff.

While Judaism has a core belief about the value of remembering, memory’s purpose is to help us make our present and future better. And while remembering our complaints may help us see the difference between the world as it is and the one that we’d like, it’s crucial to also focus on the ways in which we can see the progress we’ve made. And in general, it’s good for our mental health that we focus on good memories over the bad ones. But the Israelites should have realized that in the words of Billy Joel, the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.

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