Don’t say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not ask wisely about this. (Koheles 7:10)
For the 38 years of their sojourn in the midbar [and more], Bnei Yisrael had all their needs taken care of to a rather miraculous extent, were immersed in Torah learning like no other generation…and were “nezufin lifnei hamakom” for that entire period.
It is actually that very state of affairs that is the proximate cause of the new generation’s first brush with divine retribution: the complaint about the “lechem haklokel”, the fact that the manna, being a completely “spiritual” food, never resulted in any waste byproduct—in other words, no going to the bathroom for 40 years.
Rashi notes the foreshadowing: the last time there was an “express trip” to make a dash for the border—in parshas Beha’alosecha—it elicited a similar complaint [the “misonenim”], and the resulting 38 year delay. And, here, as Rashi notes, the analog between the lashon hara of the meraglim and the lashon hara here [the reason for the snakebites].
The Divine response is interesting precisely because G-d Himself seems to go out of His way, as it were, to prevent a re-occurrence of the meraglim: as Rav Dessler points out, He sanctions an approach with the Nachash Necshoshes which is virtually the same method as what the egel was supposed to have been [albeit, this time as a Divine command as opposed to done on a questionable human initiative].
Similarly, one might find loose parallels between Bilaam and Amalek: Amalek attacked the stragglers, the “lo yirei Elo-kim”; Bilaam looked specifically for what would be Bnei Yisrael’s weakest point of resistance, and eventually all the “work” of eradicating the Jews would be done by the Divine wrath incurred by the resulting transgressions.
[Interestingly, one might notice that a historical tendency among the worst anti-Semites to have others do their work for them. Aside from the fact that Hitler ym”sh was known to be a late riser, he also was loath to actually go anywhere he would have to see the killing of Jews being performed. Similarly, Bilaam himself started the entire chain of events by telling Balak how to “seduce” the Jews to their own destruction, avoiding any real direct involvement himself.]
Again, we see that Bnei Yisrael were afflicted with a plague [as they were at the time of Korach, possibly the nadir of the entire sequence of events that started with the misonenim and ended with Korach’s rebellion], and to avoid what seemed to be a repeat, an extraordinary sequence of events occurred culminating in Pinchas’ single-handed staying of the plague—except, when one looks at the Gemara in Sanhedrin [83a or thereabouts], which describe how the hand of G-d paved the way for his action to be successful, we see again that G-d himself was actually willing to get involved to change the outcome from what might have otherwise been as tragic as it had been nearly forty years previously.
I would venture to say, in a way, the G-d, kevayachol, was implementing a “curve” of sorts for this generation so that they wouldn’t suffer as their forebears had, even if it meant implementing a form af “affirmative action” that was unavailable for the dor yetziah; this despite the fact that, in this case, if one would try to make an analog between aveiros, one might think the “klokel” complaint was worse than the quail complaint, as it attacked the obvious [and long-ongoing] manifestation of divine providence; and, if one could “compare” avoda zaras, if one considers that there were very few actual “worshippers” vis-à-vis the egel [erev rav notwithstanding], the sin of Peor was worse, with or without the ick factor.
So it’s plausible that, even thought this generation had known nothing but Torah and the “Eibishter provided” in the most literal sense possible, something was still missing. To the point that, as the Gemara in Brachos 7a details, G-d withheld Himself from his daily allowance of anger so Bilaam couldn’t pull off an efficacious curse.
The conclusion that might be drawn from all this is that, for all the talk of “yeridas hadoros” and our generation’s ostensible lack of worthiness compared to our ancestors, sometimes there are reasons that Divine Providence deems the “lesser” doros worthy of the kind of help that wasn’t necessarily meted out to those previous doros. The aforementioned parallels between Chukas/Balak and Behaalosecha/Shelach—and other pratfalls—serve as one example. The contrast between the European generations and our current ones serve as another one. Regardless of the historical truth of whether or not “nobody was frei”, again, there are reasons that things happen now that didn’t happen then—l’tova and l’ra’a, but I would say more l’tova.
While history may repeat itself, it always leaves enough of a window, and at some point, G-d will be looking through that window.