Rabbi David Walk
Optimists see: A glass half full. Pessimists see: A glass half empty. Chronic complainers see: A glass that is slightly chipped holding water that isn't cold enough, probably because it's tap water when I asked for bottled water and wait, there's a smudge on the rim too, which means the glass wasn't cleaned properly and now I'll probably end up with some kind of virus—why do these things always happen to me?! I really wish that I had written that, but it was written by the complaint maven Guy Winch. Dr. Winch is apparently the world's greatest authority on complaining. He has written the book on complaining and it's called The Squeaky Wheel. He also has a blog by the same name. Although the quote above comes from an article about the chronic complainers, most of his work is about how to complain effectively. Generally, he's a powerful advocate of complaining. I wonder if he'd feel that way if he were a Jewish parent or a rabbi.
The major premise in Dr. Winch's work is that complaining is wonderful if it's done effectively. He has nine rules for effective complaining. The full list can be found on the Psychology Today website, but most of the list is very logical, like get your anger under control before complaining, focus what you're complaining about and identify the person who has the power to make the changes you seek; then complain to that person directly. He believes strongly that complaining is positive. Even though he voices concern over chronic complainers, he clearly advocates for complaining. When done correctly it improves the complainers self esteem and improves their quality of life. So, if complaining is so wonderful, why does this week's parsha attack the complaining of the Jewish nation in the desert so emphatically?
At the beginning of chapter eleven in this week's parsha we are told: The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp (Numbers 11:1). Okay, the Jews wanted to complain and this was considered such a horrible action that many were killed by a fire emanating from God. That's harsh. Now, what's fascinating is what happens next. Just a few verses late we hear the following: Moshe said to the Lord, "Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers? Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune (verses 11-15). Look who's complaining now. So, what's God's reaction to this complaint? God says: Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of
There clearly are reasonable and unreasonable complaints. How do we distinguish between them? Could it be that we judge the merit of a complaint by the source of the complaint? Since we trust Moshe, we accept his complaint; since we're skeptical about the sincerity of the man on the street, we reject their complaint. I certainly hope not. I would hope that complaints are evaluated based upon the content.
As is often true in textual analysis, a careful look at the words can provide an answer. The complaining of the Jews is introduced by the unusual term mitoninim, which we translated as wanted to complain. Other attempts to translate this term come up with murmur or sigh continually. Both have negative connotations. Rashi comments: The term denotes a pretext. They were seeking a pretext to turn away from the Omnipresent. According to Rash it was a set up. They were looking for a fight. This rarely used expression has the same root as the word onen, which describes a person's status during that very difficult period between the death and burial of one of the seven close relatives for whom a Jew must mourn. This is a state of such total despair and psychological anguish that the individual is exempted from normal halachik obligations. Plus, the word is in the reflexive form. They were making themselves out to be in a hopeless state of despondency. And over what? The food! Plus the compliant is about the quality of the food, not its amount.
Moshe, on the other hand, is concerned about legitimate leadership issues. The demands upon him are becoming superhuman and that's not fair to him or the Jewish people.
Now it's time to go back to the complaint Guy, Dr. Winch, who says: Resist the temptation of becoming a chronic complainer, lest you slide over the slippery slope into victim-hood. Choose your issues. Some complaints are simply not worth your time and trouble. Let them go!
A careful reading of the parsha should bring us to the same conclusion. There are worthwhile complaints and frivolous complaints. Learn the difference. Moshe teaches us that there is room for reasonable, constructive complaints. While the group of Jewish complainers shows us how easy it is to slip into the category of whiners. We must resist that temptation. So, go ahead and complain, but keep it focused on genuine issues, and, please, do it to somebody else.
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