Complaining is often viewed as a bad habit. Who can forget the nagging question of are we there yet on long road trips as children. The inevitable response was to stop whining, we’ll get there when we do. It served no useful purpose to complain because there was nothing that could be done about the situation.
As a young man in high school and college, we were taught a very different lesson. We were urged not just to accept the status quo, but to go out and protest. We traveled to Washington, DC to march in support of freeing Soviet Jewry. There were also the protests against the Vietnam War. There were even walkouts from classes in college to protest a proposed increase in the student activity fee.
Some of the protests were peaceful and quite effective. The message was well defined and the means chosen to deliver it to the actual decision-makers, who could affect the outcome, were carefully crafted. Sometimes, it was a silent march accompanying the representatives who would be personally delivering a petition to a decision-maker or at his or her offices.
Other times, though, the situation degraded, when some chose to sit in at the offices or violence erupted. The focus of the march or rally quickly deteriorated and the message was usually lost in the clamor. Many took the opportunity to complain about unrelated matters or just to protest for its own sake. The scene could become chaotic. It was a heady mixture of danger, excitement and hormones, as young men and women were thrust together in furtherance of some perceived higher purpose or virtue. The scene was addictive to many and the cause became irrelevant. It was all about the so-called movement, not any particular cause.
The world doesn’t seem to be so very different today, more than 45 years later. Many who casually attend protests can’t readily and coherently explain the actual substance of what they are protesting. It’s still all about the movement or, as it is often presently labeled, the resistance.
Human nature also hasn’t fundamentally changed. Just giving voice to suffering does not necessarily achieve the beneficial purpose of obtaining relief or even a catharsis. Sometimes it only prolongs and deepens the feelings of desperation. Why then complain? What useful purpose does it serve? Is complaining ever really justified?
The Bible recognizes the human propensity to complain. Indeed, the famous groan heard round the world occurred when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. They were afforded some time off to mark the death of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They finally had a moment to groan[i] and cry out because of the crushing burden of their bondage. They may not have expressly appealed to G-d for help; but their sighs were heard by G-d, as if they were a prayer[ii]. It was this collective groan[iii], which precipitated the ultimate redemption from slavery in Egypt. The Bible does not chastise those who groaned and cried out. Indeed, it would appear that they had the right to complain about their plight and G-d responded positively.
Yet the Bible[iv], in this week’s Torah reading of Parshat Behalotecha, describes a series of incidents involving people complaining, with decidedly negatively results. The very act of complaining was viewed as extremely sinful behavior. It appears that not all complaints are treated the same. What then are the distinguishing characteristics that enable one kind of complaint to be treated positively and another with extreme prejudice? Is there a guiding set of principles that govern in these kinds of situations and, if so, then what are they?
The first such incident described in this week’s Torah reading[v] begins by identifying a sinful group as those who acted like they were complaining bitterly. This is because they were not voicing a genuine complaint, about some matter as to which they truly felt personally aggrieved. Rather, they were complaining merely as a pretext[vi] to undermine the existing order. They did not complain to G-d and voice heartfelt concerns that could be addressed; they just complained and inspired others to do so, as well. They mounted what in modern parlance would be referred to as a resistance.
It was all about rebellion against G-d and the new order embodied in the Torah, which G-d revealed at Mount Sinai only a little more than a year prior to these events. It was a resistance against the perceived burdens of the system of Torah. The Bible views the use of a contrived wrong as a pretext for justifying negative behavior most disparagingly.
It began with the mixed-multitude[vii], who accompanied the Jewish people as they left Egypt. They were uncomfortable with bearing the yoke of Torah and wanted the freedom to do as they wished, just like the permissive lifestyle they enjoyed in Egypt. However, they did not overtly complain about having to fulfill G-d’s commandments, as provided in the oral and written laws of the Torah. This kind of an open break with the Torah and G-d may not have been acceptable to or tolerated by the vast majority of the Jewish people around them. Instead they were more insidious, choosing to fixate on not having meat to eat. They used this as a pretext to challenge the prevailing authority of G-d, the Torah and Moses.
To better understand the fatuous nature of their complaints, it is important to appreciate that slaves were not fed meat in Egypt. In addition, sheep were worshipped as a deity in Egypt and, thus, it is likely that few others ate meat, as well. Moreover, the Jewish people left Egypt with flocks of cattle and there were plenty available to be slaughtered to provide meat for those who truly desired it. Why then the sudden overwhelming craving for meat to eat? In a sense, it was a wholly self-induced and contrived crisis. As noted above, it was never really about the meat and it did not end well for those who artificially precipitated the crisis[viii].
The Torah[ix] reading this week also describes the incident of Miriam complaining to Aaron about Moses. This time the complaint was genuine and heartfelt. Miriam was concerned about her brother Moses separating from Tziporah, his wife[x]. Her concern for her brother and her sister-in-law was noble. However, speaking to her brother, Aaron about it served no useful purpose. It was just, in effect, malicious gossip. As a result, Miriam was punished with the affliction of Tzara’at. Moses did pray for her to be cured and G-d did intervene to do so; but only after she had endured ostracism for seven days[xi].
In striking contrast, prior to the incident with Miriam, the Bible[xii] recounts Moses’ extraordinary complaints to G-d about his impossibly difficult job and working conditions. He plaintively remarks that he is not the mother, who conceived and bore the Jewish people. He should not have to be their nursemaid or carry them. He offers that it just too much for him to bear. He even goes so far as to say if this is what the position really entails then it would be better if G-d just killed him and be done with it. These words may seem harsh, but they were genuine and heartfelt. Moses just couldn’t take it any more.
The Bible does not record that G-d had any problem with Moses complaining this way. Moses was expressing his pain and suffering to G-d and not anyone else. It was G-d alone who could actually do something about solving the problem. This G-d did and Moses was instructed to gather 70 talented and experienced people, who could help him govern. G-d then ennobled them with prophetic inspiration so that they could function well in this new capacity and truly ease Moses’ burdens. What is the difference between Moses’ complaints and those of Miriam and the others noted above? Why are Moses’ complaints favorably resolved and those of the others result in severe punishments?
It is suggested that the answer lies in a careful analysis of these incidents. There is a fundamental difference between complaining to G-d for help in resolving a genuine problem and just complaining for its own sake or as a pretext. Just complaining for the sake of complaining and not as a means of seeking a solution is generally wrong. Similarly, complaining to someone, who can’t help is a form of gossip. Both these activities serve no useful purpose. Even worse, though, is complaining as a pretext to resist and undermine adherence to the Torah. This is tantamount to a rebellion against G-d.
On the other hand, heartfelt genuine complaints to G-d, including crying out in sheer pain and desperation, are the equivalent of prayer. Moses’ language may have been harsh, but G-d is gracious, understanding and forgiving. In this regard, reference may be made to the Book of Job in the Tanach. The Talmud[xiii] reports Moses likely wrote Job and that it was probably a fictional work[xiv]. The Book of Job discusses suffering, complaining and the nature of Divine Providence. Job suffered so mightily that he wished he had never been born[xv]. When Job’s three friends visited him, they, in effect, reprimanded him for complaining about his lot[xvi]. Yet G-d defended Job and rebuked Job’s friends[xvii]. As the Talmud[xviii] explains, what Job said may have been inappropriate, but G-d does not hold a person responsible for what he says when he is in distress.
The art of complaining is a part of how we face the challenges of life. Like life, it is a nuanced experience. Don’t waste it on mindless protests and aimless resistance. Choose to live it like Moses, with faith that G-d is listening, even to our complaints. May we be blessed to live life free of reasons to complain.
[i] Exodus 2:23.
[ii] Ibid and see Ohr Hachaim and Chizkuni commentaries on the verse.
[iii] Exodus 6:5 and see Rashi and Sforno commentaries thereon.
[iv] Numbers, Chapters 11 and 12.
[v] Numbers 11:1.
[vi] Ibid and see Rashi and Malbim commentaries on the verse, as well as, Sifrei, Bamidbar 85:1.
[vii] Numbers 11:4.
[viii] Numbers 11:33.
[ix] Numbers 12:1-16.
[x] See Abarbanel and Chizkuni commentaries on Number 12:1, as well as, Sifrei, Bamidbar 99:1.
[xi] Numbers 12:12.
[xii] Number 11:11-15.
[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 14b.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 15a. See also Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:22.
[xv] Job, Chapter 3.
[xvi] See, for example, Job 2:11 and Chapters 4, 8 and 11.
[xvii] Job 42:7-8.
[xviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 16b and see Rashi commentary thereon..