Behaalotekha: Thou Shalt Not Complain

After almost a year of dwelling around Mount Sinai, the time has come to set off. Moses is bursting with expectation – soon they will all enter the Land of Israel. He entreats his father-in-law, Yitro, to stay with the Israelites and enter the land with them, reiterating to him the good that awaits them when they arrive (Num. 10:29–32). But then we learn that not only will Yitro be prevented from entering the land, so will Moses. We also learn that before things improve they will become much worse.

When the Israelite encampment sets off, Moses tenses in anticipation of the war that awaits them upon entering the land. He cries out, “Rise up, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee” (Num. 10:35). Little does he know that the enemies and haters are not lying in wait along the path, but rather within.

Complaints Are Worse Than Sins

Moses’ call is an expression of peak expectations. Soon afterward, things begin to fall apart: we learn that the parents’ generation will die off in the desert, their children fated to wander the wastes for decades. But what is the sin that ruins it all? Even the sin of the Golden Calf – an idolatrous lapse at the holiest moment in the relationship between God and the Jewish people – was not beyond atonement and rectification. What could be worse? What sin cannot be atoned for?

Our parasha and the ones that follow chronicle a series of negative events: the complaints of the people who lust for meat, Miriam speaking ill of Moses, the spies and the defamation of the land, and the challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership. All of these events can be summed up with a single word: complaints. But what is so bad about complaints? There is no commandment in the Torah “Thou shalt not complain.” Furthermore, what can be more human than complaining? In order to answer that question, let us examine the complaints. It will become apparent that they are not the problem, but rather what motivates them.

Past, Present, and Future

The Israelites’ complaints do not begin in Numbers: as far back as Parashat Beshallaĥ the people moan about a lack of water and food (Ex. 15:17). However, as Elchanan Samet points out, in Bashallaĥ the complaints appear justified – there is indeed a dearth of food and water at the outset of the journey. Even if the people could have dealt with it in a more positive fashion, the complaints are understandable. In our parasha, on the other hand, the complaints are of an entirely different nature.

The problems begin after Moses exclaims, “Rise up, O Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered.” Shortly afterward, the Torah says, “the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled” (Num. 11:1). “Murmuring” in this context signifies a complaint of sorts. But we are not told what the people complain about. That omission, it seems, conveys something that is true of the other complaints as well: the thing that the people complain about is not the source of the complaint, but at best a pretext. An inability to recognize this truth can generate the delusion that if only the complainer were to receive his “heart’s desire,” everything would sort itself out. It is a delusion shared by both the complainer and the party that wants to help him. But the truth is that some people’s basic outlook on life is negative. This negativity underpins their entire point of view, coloring their perception of reality. They walk around with the conviction that others want to harm them, and are blind to the many opportunities for a blessed improvement to their lives. They see only what is missing and never what there is. They are always wanting, always miserable.

Here is how the Torah introduces these characters:

And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said, “Would that we were given flesh to eat! We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have naught save this manna to look to.” (Num. 11:4–6)

The complaints are contagious – one group of the “mixed multitude” begins to bellyache, and immediately “the children of Israel also wept on their part.”

Complaints can cause a person to become stuck in the sense that everything is bad, while the reality outside it always better. But how warped does one have to be to sink into such a state when the alternative is slavery in Egypt? The Egyptians, we recall, subjected the Israelites to a living hell, enslaving them with grueling labor and murdering their sons. And yet, to the complainers, Egypt appears a place of bounty, a lost paradise. The claim that the food in Egypt was given freely is ludicrous. Even if true, there was no charge for the food for the very reason that animals receive their food “for free”: animals are property; they have no money, and are fed so as to better carry out their masters’ wishes.

Just as the complainers cast their bad past as good, so too they manage to portray their present as negative. They scorn God’s gift, the manna, and the Torah is forced, parenthetically, to devote three verses (7–9) to praising the manna and refuting their claims. God, in response to their lust for meat, gives the complainers what they want: “Until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying, ‘Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?’” (Num. 11:20). The lust for meat causes them to reject God, but shortly thereafter they reject the meat as well. The thought that meat is what is missing from their lives turns out to be a delusion. Beyond its distortion of reality, the narrow-mindedness and pettiness of their complaint is galling: is it possible that the most important thing in life, prompting such laments and a yearning to return to Egypt, is meat?

This skewed perspective, sadly, is not a thing of the past. Hoshea Friedman Ben Shalom, who heads Beit Yisrael, a pre-military academy geared toward contributing to Israeli society, likens our present times to the generation of the Exodus. We are fortunate to live in a time where great things are happening, the most important century for the Jewish people in the last two thousand years, but people are caught up in squabbles and petty complaints. This is true not only of the national arena, but also of the interpersonal realm. I recall vividly a scene from a wedding I attended, at which the father of the groom was arguing with the staff of the venue about the table arrangement even as the ĥuppa ceremony was starting, instead of rejoicing in his son’s big day.

In the coming parashot, the people’s nostalgia for Egypt continues to swell. Some suggest returning to the land of their enslavement (Num. 14:4), while others heap upon it superlatives formerly reserved for the Land of Israel, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (16:13). Then the complainers move on from scorning God (11:20) to blaspheming (14:11). The skewed sense of reality is applied not only to the past and present, but also to the future – in the sin of the spies in Parashat Shelaĥ. The past was good, the present is bad, and the future will be even worse.

Sins of “Doing” and Sins of “Being”

The people’s complaints are too much for Moses to bear:

And Moses heard the people weeping…and Moses was displeased. And Moses said unto the Lord, “Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favor in Thy sight, that Thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?… And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in Thy sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.” (Num. 11:10–15)

The relationship between Moses and the people has deteriorated sharply. After the sin of the Golden Calf, he was prepared to sacrifice himself to save them (Ex. 32:33), but now he asks to die, if only to be spared the burden of leading them. What causes this massive crisis?

The complaints are not a one-off occurrence or a temporary lapse. They are an expression and reflection of the people’s life, and characteristic of a general atmosphere. A distorted perception of reality can put negativity center-stage, no matter how good things are. In hindsight, the road not taken always turns out to have been the better choice. Rashi writes that when Moses prays for the recovery of his sister, Miriam, who is afflicted for speaking ill of him, he has to keep it short: “Why did Moses not pray at length? So that the Israelites should not say, ‘His sister is in distress, yet he stands and prolongs his prayer.’ Another interpretation: So that Israel should not say, ‘For his sister he prays at length, but for our sake he does not pray at length’” (Rashi on Numbers 12:13).

Moses cannot win: there is no one to talk to, no possibility for a relationship, nowhere to go. Moses feels he that cannot go on in such a toxic atmosphere. The sin of the Golden Calf can be overcome, but there is no overcoming a fundamentally warped worldview. Formulated in terms of “doing” and “being,” if a sin is in the realm of “being” – it can be transcended. But when its root is in “being,” it manifests a deep inner world, and God’s forgiveness will solve nothing, because it does not catalyze inner change.

Crime and Punishment

Although the moaners and bellyachers are ultimately proven right, they do not recognize the fact that their complaints are a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. This is clearly apparent in the story of the spies, who give the following description of themselves: “And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Num. 13:33). It is no wonder that when the spies have low self-esteem, and see themselves as “grasshoppers,” others also come to see them in the same light: “and so we were in their sight.”

The punishment for the sin of the spies is the possibility that the complaints will come true. God says:

How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, that keep murmuring against Me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they keep murmuring against Me. Say unto them, “As I live, saith the Lord, surely as ye have spoken in Mine ears, so will I do to you: your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, ye that have murmured against Me.” (Num. 14:27–29)

It seems that beyond the punishment, we learn that the generation of the Exodus had a model of reality that prevented them from continuing to the next stage and entering the land, necessitating a wait for the next generation. Tellingly, Caleb and Joshua, who believe that the people can enter the Land of Israel, eventually do reach it. Just as negative outlooks have the power to shape reality for the worse, positive outlooks can give rise to a better reality. The verse “Who is the man that desireth life, and loveth days, that he may see good therein” (34:13–15) can be read not just as a question but also as an assertion: Who desires life? Those who love their days and see good in them. If we are to actualize ourselves, we must see the good and have a positive view of reality.

In one of his seminal discourses, Rabbi Nahman lays out the demand that people always look for the good in themselves and in others (Likutei Moharan Kama 282). This extends to evil people as well: if you see the good in them and focus on it, they will change. People, like life itself, are complicated, a mixture of good and evil. Spotlighting the positive in a person can frame the way we see them and shape their identity. When people focus on the good in themselves, they can be happy with their lives and reach positive places. Focusing on the negative in the other, however, can lead to despair. Rabbi Nahman warns of this, and chooses to end the first part of Likutei Moharan with it.

Internal Tikkun Olam

Ultimately, much of the Torah’s focus is on rectifying the individual’s personal conduct. The Israelites’ problem in our parasha has more to do with their inner world than with any practical aspect of life. Much of one’s basic conception of reality is shaped in the very early years of one’s life. The generation of the Exodus grew up in a reality of intense suffering, which can perhaps explain their pathological approach to reality, and their inability to change even when their fate changes for the better.

One of the novelties of our age is the growing understanding that our inner world and models of reality are mutable. Hasidism and Kabbala deal extensively with the inner space of the psyche, which strives to rectify not only the “doing” but also the “being.” A prerequisite for changing one’s model of reality is an awareness of the difference between the world and the manner in which we experience and interpret it. Only with such awareness can one see that the necessary change is not in reality itself but rather in how we conceive of it. When we realize that, we can finally ask ourselves why we choose to interpret reality negatively, and how we can open ourselves up to other perspectives.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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