Beha’alotcha 5780 – Welcome to the Whine Country

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In this parshah, the Israelites complain about the unpleasantness of their journey, exasperating both God and Moses.

First, the people complain that they are moving too fast. God sends a fire that consumes people at the edge of the camp. Moses prays and God withdraws the fire. Next, there are more complaints. The people are tired of manna from heaven. They crave meat and vegetables and fruit and garlic. They wish they were back in Egypt. They complain, despite the fact that the Torah tells us that manna is a heavenly delicacy whose flavor knows only the bounds of the human imagination.

When the Israelites complained about the lack of meat, it was an appalling show of ingratitude, but not the first time Israelites behaved that way. There were three earlier episodes in the book of Exodus. First, they complained the water was bitter. Then, they protested the lack of food. Later, they grumbled at the absence of water. But it is this forceful outburst of the people about meat which seemed to cause a near complete breakdown of Moses.

Why did Moses despair so much when the people complained about the lack of food? As mentioned, they had done so before. But they were different before. Previously, they had not yet gone through the transformative experiences that shaped them as a nation. Now, no sooner than they had left the Sinai desert to begin their journey again, the people reverted to their old habits of complaining as if nothing had changed. If the revelation at Sinai, the experience of divine anger over the golden calf, and the long labor of building the tabernacle had not changed them, what would or could?  Now, for the first time since the mission began Moses could see defeat staring him in the face.

In response to the complaints, God told Moses to tell the Israelites that there will be meat – so much meat that they must eat it for a whole month until it comes out of their nostrils and makes them sick.

We learn from the Sifri that there are occasions when a person might voice a complaint or make an argument, when in truth, he does not believe what he’s saying. Rather he is using it as an excuse to justify undesirable behavior. In the case of these complainers, this undesirable behavior manifests itself in the people’s desire to separate themselves from God.

In the view of the sages, it was not the discomfort of the wilderness that provoked the Israelites’s complaints. It was the burden of morality, to which they had not yet become accustomed, that left them nostalgic for the days in Egypt.

Their lack of gratitude and the extent of their greed are unfathomable. Or are they? It is human nature never to be satisfied with one’s current possessions and achievements. The Mishnah declares that” one who has 100 desires 200.” Upon attaining 200, the person will crave 400 -and this continues ad infinitum. God instilled us with this nature for good reason:  its purpose is to constantly drive a person forward in his spiritual quest, not allowing him to be content with spiritual heights scaled yesterday. This nature is also the spark which continually drives scientists to unearth new discoveries and inventors to originate new inventions, which greatly improve our quality of life. We complained we haven’t been able to see each other or pray together, and ZOOM, here we are. If this quality is not used in pursuit of positive and productive objectives, then it deteriorates into an insatiable and pointless desire for more and more luxury and wealth.

Even though the person complaining would not admit it, complaining has nothing to do with circumstance and everything to do with attitude. But why do we complain? The problem is with expectations. The higher our expectations, the more upset we feel when life does not live up to them. We expected to shelter in place for a couple of weeks but that did not work out. I find myself complaining more than usual. On the other hand, the less we expect, the more likely we are to see the good in whatever comes our way. Expectations will never contribute to our happiness. They will only undermine it.

Sometimes, people engage in complaining as a way to ask for help. Voicing one’s complaints is one way to get things fixed. If you complain to someone who is in a position to make changes, and if you use a diplomatic approach, complaining in this way can be more effective in relieving stress than saying nothing, since the” polite complaint” approach can get results. We have seen this approach with the peaceful protestors marching for what happened to George Floyd.

In these days of Covid 19 restrictions and human rights issues, we are under pressure and sometimes we feel the urge to explode. Letting it all out can relieve the inner tension we feel from a difficult situation and help us feel ready to face the next frustration. Sometimes we just need to blow off steam by expressing ourselves.

Complaining, however, can be damaging as well. When a few venting sessions turn into a continual habit, where a few people venting their frustration turns into a group of constant complainers, we can induce more stress.

Complaining focuses on the problem, not potential solutions. A habitual focus of complaining brings about a pessimistic perspective. Complaining can be contagious. If you do not have a support of the group, complaining can be detrimental. Those who frequently complain can “suck the life” out of others.

Whether you call it whining, kvetching, faultfinding or complaining-when a person constantly finds things wrong with whatever situation he’s in, it makes him and the people around them miserable.

When one focuses only on what he is missing, he blinds himself to what he does have. No matter how much you do have, there will always be something to complain about if you look hard enough. Anyone having a negative attitude must make a concerted effort to build up the habit of appreciating what he has and what happens to him.

The story of the” Manna Mutiny” has a powerful moral lesson: strive for more and better in areas of character, good deeds, and our relationship with God and our fellow man. But always be happy with the material bounty that God has granted.

I will close with two statements I found:  There is an Indian proverb:” I had no shoes and complained, until I met a man with no feet.”

Finally, as we struggle with our new way of life, think about what Maya Angelou said” what you’re supposed to do when you don’t like that thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.