Sometimes, in my dreams, I am in a New York deli eating a hot pastrami on rye. I am in my twenties, and I can eat as many half-sour pickles as I want without worrying about my sodium intake. I wash down my imaginary meal with Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. During my recent trip to NYC, I lived this dream, only to discover that the reality did not measure up to my fond memories of meals I had eaten in my twenties.
Our biblical ancestors had a similar experience in the wilderness. Sick of the manna and nostalgic for the variety of foods they ate in Egypt, the people of Israel complain bitterly to Moses about the lack of meat in their diet: “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt for free: the cucumbers and the melons and the leek and the onions and the garlics. And now, our soul is dried up. There isn’t anything—except the manna before our eyes.” (Numbers 11:4-6) Sure, the fish was free; living near the Nile made it available even to slaves. And Pharaoh was a real prince to provide them with daily meals. Yet, when God sends manna from heaven—a miracle food that met each person’s nutritional needs—they are ungrateful.
Reading these verses, I recognize my own tendency toward nostalgia and marvel at the human ability to reframe unpleasant memories, to soften the edges of negative emotions. How often does our yearning to relive the past contribute to a faulty recollection of our experiences?
Our ancestors are uncomfortable in the wilderness because they lack stability during their transition from Egypt to Israel. We, too, experience discomfort when our future is uncertain and our present expectations are unmet. This frustration can lead us to romanticize about the past. But if we don’t look back and we keep our eyes trained on the future, there are no limits to what we may achieve.
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