Where is the line between complaining and communicating one’s pain? The dictionary defines complaining as “express dissatisfaction or annoyance about something; state that one is suffering from (a pain or other symptom of illness)”, all things that seem “ok” to do, especially in a world of “being open about one’s feelings” and “sharing what’s going on with me”… and yet, “complaining” has a bad rap.
In this Torah portion, we encounter the Children of Israel complaining. The scene often evokes a chuckle: look at “them”, “they” are complaining, again, nu, nu, nu… they just got out of Egypt and already… how ungrateful!
But, before we point any fingers at “them”, let’s rethink this: The Book of Numbers has 10 Torah portion; 36 chapters and if I did the math correctly, 1,288 verses. Let’s say that they complained in every verse, every day (which they did not-)… this gives us 42 months i.e. about 3.5 years of complaining once a day… what about the rest of the 36.5 years in the desert?? I can’t help think about us in these situations… How long can we go without complaining?? Oh, if we could cut it down to only once a day! To only 20 times, if that much, in 40 years!
I think they complain very little and that when they do, we should not dismiss it, but look at it and try to understand what just happened the moment right before. In this case, the last thing that happens before the complaints are the festive preparations and more celebratory statements for the Beginning of the journey; And then… complaints… !! וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר ה’ דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַאֲר֨וֹן בְּרִית־ה’ נֹסֵ֣עַ לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים לָת֥וּר לָהֶ֖ם מְנוּחָֽה׃
Let’s zoom in a little more and see the flow of the verses (end of chapter 10, beginning of 11):
And they marched from the mountain of the LORD a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them;
וַעֲנַ֧ן ה’ עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם יוֹמָ֑ם בְּנׇסְעָ֖ם מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
and the LORD’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.
׆ וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ ה’ וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O LORD! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!
וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה ה’ רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ׆
And when it halted, he would say: Return, O LORD, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!
וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה’ וַיִּ֣חַר אַפּ֔וֹ וַתִּבְעַר־בָּם֙ אֵ֣שׁ ה’ וַתֹּ֖אכַל בִּקְצֵ֥ה הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
The people took to complaining bitterly before the LORD. The LORD heard and was incensed: a fire of the LORD broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.
וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר ה’ דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַאֲר֨וֹן בְּרִית־ה’ נֹסֵ֣עַ לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים לָת֥וּר לָהֶ֖ם מְנוּחָֽה׃
What on earth happened?! They were three days away from their destination!! Three days! Let’s say, they are feeling bad, there was no meat, and the complaint is real! Can’t we hug our “children” and promise them we’ll make it up in just 3 days with lots of milk and honey, reassure that for now, we have manna, and water, and we’ll be ok?!
But a careful read reveals that they are not complaining about “something”; they are – complaining. Paul Simon said (rather, sang), “you know, the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away”… The Children of Israel are not complaining in spite of how close they are to the Land, but –because of it!!
Turns out, there is something more terrifying than failure, and that is… success. Of course, this is usually not conscious and it gets us what we – not knowingly – want, or better, fear. Likewise, the Children of Israel, being so close to achieving their journey’s goal, start doing things that sabotage its full accomplishment, thereby, not yet entering the Land. They hang it on, well, anything, telling Moses they lack this and that, when what they really lack is self-confidence, a conviction; a “raison d’etre”, ingredients without which any journey is impossible. The Midrash tells us on the opening verse here, “And they marched from the mountain of the LORD”… noticing the word “from”, that rather than going “to”, they
“ran away like a child running away from school / Torah learning” (Shabbat 116:a).
This may sound far, but I could not help thinking of this situation in the desert, in light of the recent events in Israel. We barely recovered from the awful – and as of yet, still unexplained and I dread its explanation – tragedy in Mt. Meron, and we are already dealing with rockets from outside, and an interior war from within on a couple of fronts. And we debate and wonder, what to do, if to do, are we surprised, angry, who’s fault it is and on and on… and I wonder, have we too, forgotten the course of our journey? Do we think that just because there’s high-tech and cherry-tomatoes and sprinklers and high-rises along lovely, red-roofed houses that we’ve almost “made it”? Do we believe that we are in the Land and need to be here, to run away “from”, or do we still have that conviction, the knowledge of why we came here, of all places and not anywhere else, and what we got “to” do?
…. After the airport opening, the next best thing about Covid “ending” (or at least being placed into remission) is the return of Israeli dancing. For years, I heard the music, mouthing the words, often with tears in my eyes, dreaming of being back “in the Land”… Now, with each tune, I think of my friends overseas around the circle, and places far away…. Am I too “losing it” now that I’m back here?
I know you’ll smile but davka Israeli dancing, for me, holds a reminder: the steps mixed from all background, from all corners of the earth – Eastern European, “Oriental” (by that here people mean Mediterranean…), Spanish, Yemenite, and more; and the songs, loudly announcing their unbashful love for Jerusalem, longings for the Land and its scenery, including words from the Torah, Prophets and poetry… maybe it’s just my way of pitching what I love, but maybe also I want to say that, one way or another, we need to adjust our compass to continue the journey, so it doesn’t take us 40 years of being lost in the desert again.