Kvetching is a great Yiddish word. It’s robust and full of flavor. And it’s something we find plenty of in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach.
Twelve scouts are sent by G-d to the land of Canaan to assess the strength of the inhabitants and investigate the productivity of the land. Ten of them come back and kvetch. In fact, they go one step beyond kvetching — they rebel against Adonai.
After a 40-day reconnaissance mission, all but Caleb and Joshua report that it would not be possible to conquer the land, as G-d wants, because the people in Canaan are stronger than they. As the scouts spread calumnies among the Israelites, they rebel against Moses and Aaron, saying, “If only we had died in Egypt. … Why is Adonai taking us to that land to be killed? … Let us return to Egypt.”
In the midst of these complaints and accusations, Caleb and Joshua try to calm the people down. They call upon the Israelites to trust in Adonai, rather than rebel against G-d. Ignoring their words, the community readies themselves to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones. Just then, the presence of Adonai appears in the Tent of Meeting for all to see.
As the text informs, G-d is noticeably angered and threatens to strike down the Israelites. “How long will this people spurn me and how long will they have no faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” G-d’s initial response is to strike them with pestilence and disown them.
If Adonai’s reaction sounds harsh, perhaps it’s because this is not the first time that the Israelites have rebelled against G-d since being redeemed from Egyptian slavery. In last week’s parsha, our ancestors complained twice before Adonai. The first time, G-d became incensed and caused a fire to break out in their camp. After the second complaint — about eating manna all the time — G-d became angry with them and responded by providing quail meat to eat; but G-d did so with vengeance, saying: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”
And, of course, we have the rebellious act of the Golden Calf.
Despite G-d’s anger and frustration with his people, and his stated desire to destroy us, he does not. G-d finds a way to temper anger with mercy; such is the common thread running through each of these episodes. Are the Israelites punished for their behavior? Yes. Are there consequences for their actions? Yes. Does G-d permanently remove his presence from us, or even worse, destroy us, as threatened? No. G-d hangs in there with us, and does not abandon us, despite the lack of trust, faith and appreciation for what he has done for us. G-d remains committed to his people, despite our failings and shortcomings. G-d forgives and moves on.
This is a lesson that we can apply to our own lives. When our loved ones kvetch and “rebel” against us, when we get angry and frustrated with them — as we will — we need to remember that our initial reaction might not be the best one. Just as G-d used Moses as a sounding board, so to speak, to intervene and calm things down, it can be helpful for us to discuss our frustrations with a confidant before reacting. We, like G-d, need to temper our anger with mercy. We need to find a way to move past our initial emotional response and react in a way that keeps our relationships intact. By doing so, we will be able to serve as a positive presence in the lives of our loved ones.
G-d’s knee-jerk reaction against our ancestors did not come to fruition; neither should ours.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)