In this week’s Torah reading we hear an oft repeated refrain uttered by many in the generation that found itself in the desert of Sinai. They said that we want to return to Egypt. The present is too difficult, and the future is too uncertain so let us go home to Egypt which we were familiar with and where we knew what to expect.
All human beings fear uncertainty. The future is always somewhat terrifying because of its unknown quality. We lack the self confidence to know that we can somehow overcome all difficulties, even those which are currently not apparent. There is always that inner voice within that bids us to attempt to return to a known past rather than to advance to an uncertain future.
This psychological weakness permeates the entire series of events which are reflected in the Chumash of Bamidbar. There is security in the past, even in a past that was not pleasant or congenial. We see this in the Jewish world today when people want to return to the eastern European past that can never be renewed, instead of attempting to create a great future which will be relevant to its time.
Human beings and especially the Jewish People are extremely adaptable and capable of facing the challenges of the unknown future.
This statement of let us return to Egypt is therefore representative not only of the generation of the desert but it is something that we hear repeated often throughout all Jewish history and in our time as well. It is a seductive statement but a dangerous one. Even if we wish to do so, there never was an ability to return to Egypt and to recast the world as it once was instead of what it is.
As we emerge from the scourge of the Corona epidemic, we again hear within us the refrain to return to what was – to the world that we knew just a few short months ago. However, that is a false hope and an unrealistic view of the matter. No matter how we will judge current events there can be no question that the world has changed and that certainties we had may no longer remain. It is the uncertainty of the future that is now descending upon us that makes us anxious and somewhat frightened.
Human beings and especially the Jewish People are extremely adaptable and capable of facing the challenges of the unknown future. It is within our power to renew our self confidence and to proclaim that we are willing and able to undertake building a newer and morally healthy and humanly beneficial society. Because of this we will have an opportunity that has not been granted too many times, to mold and shape the Jewish future in a productive and holy fashion. We should appreciate having such an opportunity and make certain that we do not squander it on nostalgia and, even worse, on repeating errors of the past. Going back to Egypt has never been a positive solution.
Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, prolific writer, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history. Formerly rabbi in Monsey, New York, he is now the spiritual leader of Hanasi Synagogue in Jerusalem.