‘The Big Book of Complaints’
TorahParshat Chukat

‘The Big Book of Complaints’

Numbers 19:1- 22:1

(File photo)
(File photo)

Moses has lost his temper. Again the people complain asking, “Why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place, not a place of seed or fig tree or vine or pomegranate, and no water to drink?” (Numbers 20:5)

Sound familiar?

Moses throughout his career has had compassion whenever the people complained. He can take it no longer: “Listen, you rebels! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, could be retitled “The Big Book of Complaints.” At every turn in their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites find something to complain about. Many commentators say the complainers are the riffraff, or the eirev rav, that came out of Egypt with Israelite slaves. The riffraff were Egyptians who spotted a window of opportunity to leave Egypt when they saw their gods defeated and their whole economy crumbling. They did not experience God the way faithful Israelites experienced God, and after the commandments were given at Mount Sinai, they were looking for a way out.

A midrash says they were like truant schoolboys running away from “the mountain of God” (Numbers 10:33) lest God lay some more commandments on them. The whole stream of complaints that we follow in the Book of Numbers — a desire for food, a desire for water, a desire for sex and even the Big Lie of the Israelite spies that the Land of Canaan is a “land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32) — are calculated attempts by the riffraff to sever their ties to God, to become truly independent of His place in their lives. In extremis, they complain to Moses that they have been stripped of desire itself: “The rabble among them desired desire and the Children of Israel wept … our souls are parched! We don’t have access to everything (we desire) — Except this manna that we anticipate (each and every day)!” (Numbers 11:4-6 ) The Big Complaint grows louder and louder and even members of Moses’ family complain about Moses’ authority over them.

God gets very upset with the people at the end of each tale. But it is not like they are worshipping golden idols. Their complaints are just words, after all. Not one of the riffraff heads a separatist group that heads back to Egypt. Complaints arise from unhappiness and boredom.

We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object itself. Rather than ever feeling satisfied, we become bored, and in response to the boredom we go on to form even grander desires (William Irvine).

The rabbis of the Talmud said: “Who is wealthy? A person who is happy with what he has.” (Avot 4:1) The Roman Stoics also reflected upon this around the same time the Talmud was composed. They suggested we spend more time imagining we have lost the things we value — that we reverse desire and visualize the mortal end of people we love and diminishing value of things we own. Epictetus counsels us, for example, when we kiss our child, to remember that she is mortal and not something we own — that she has been given to us “for the present, not inseparably forever.” By thinking negatively, the Stoics may have solved the problem of the “The Big Book of Complaints.”

Did the Israelites ever stop to consider, Moses says in Deuteronomy, what life would be like without the shoes God put on their feet and “the clothes (that God put on our backs) that did not wear out?” (Deuteronomy 8:4) When we imagine the worst of what might happen, we will not only derive more pleasure from things we own but we will not take our marriages, our family and our friendships for granted. Sometimes visualizing the glass as half empty is good thing!

I believe “The Big Book of Complaints” holds a mirror up to ourselves and should cause us to wonder how discontent can lead to rebellion, separation and violence. One only has to look at America in the 2020s to see that factionalism and resentment grow out of a world where everyone is either “one up or one down.” There is a suffering riffraff on either end of the political spectrum who complains loudly while beating drums that silence those who might disagree within their own political tribe. Facebook encourages it. TV news programs are staffed only with voices you already agree with. Slogans and jokes perpetuate codes that play only to fans. The conversation has ended.

Our Judaism guides us toward humility in all that we do and our prayers give us a time-out for visualization for “Your compassion will never be emptied and Your love will never come to an end.” (Siddur)

In losing his temper and calling his people “rebels,” Moses surrenders to the same loss of faith and demoralization that characterized the generation of the Wilderness. It is true that his outburst is only words. It is also true that this is a new generation. The people push themselves away from God yet again and this is Moses’ opportunity to teach the people the value of prayer. Praying for water will shift the responsibility to the people themselves. They will bargain with God and stop complaining.

“The Big Book of Complaints” ends teaching us, negatively, that while complaining words come and go, emunah (faith) lies deep in the soul of every Jew. Do not give up! Give others enough time to change. (Tomer Devorah) PJC

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is spiritual leader of New Light Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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