There's a joke that started making the rounds when Jews from the former Soviet Union began arriving in large numbers in Israel:
"So, really, how was life back in Russia?" a Sabra asks a new immigrant, just arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union.
"I couldn't complain," he answers.
"And how were your living quarters there?"
Again, the same answer: "I couldn't complain."
"And your standard of living?"
And again, "I couldn't complain."
"Well," responds the Israeli, "if everything was so good back in Russia, why did you bother coming here?"
"Oh," replies the new oleh, "here I can complain!"
If we were to rename this week's Torah portion, my suggestion would be Sefer Kvetch--the Book of Complaints. The Israelites at long last leave Sinai and begin their monumental journey to the Promised Land. But almost as soon as they set out, the Book of Numbers tells us, "the people took to complaining bitterly.?" (Numbers 11:1) And complain they did, on and on and on. Every parent can sympathize with Moses' frustration as he pleads with God: "I alone cannot carry this entire nation.? If this is how You deal with me, then kill me now.?" (Numbers 11:14-15) "Daddy, are we there yet?" Can you imagine hearing that well-worn phrase from a couple of million children?
But the commentators looked closely at the Hebrew text and saw it does not say that "the people complained," but that "the people were like complainers." The people were not actually complaining out loud: They were just murmuring under their breath. That is why God became angry. All the people were grumbling, but they never bothered to tell anyone what the problem was.
As Rabbi Pinchas Peli z"l points out, God does not get angry at people who complain for good reason. If the complaints are justified or warranted, then people should speak up to make their concerns heard. When the Israelites were hungry, they complained and God provided them with manna. (Exodus 16:4) When Israel was without fresh water, they complained and God made the water sweet. (Exodus 15:25) But by now the Israelites have moved out into the wilderness, have organized themselves and have seen that God will care for them. Therefore, they are complaining without reason. They have everything they need, yet they continue to grumble. This unwarranted complaining angered God and brought the otherwise patient Moses to the point of despair.
A person who lives in a free society has the right to complain about wrongs and injustice. Too often we become complacent and probably don't complain enough. However, we must make sure that our complaints are fair and that we follow up with actions to right the wrongs. Otherwise we become k'mitonenim—like murmurers—complaining for no reason other than the desire to complain. In so doing, we try the patience of others and, more likely, risk the ire of God.
Rabbi Cohen shares an insight to which we can all relate: Sometimes people kvetch just for the sake of kvetching. In studying this week's Torah portion, we might find it helpful to reread Exodus 15:22-24 (which relates the Israelites' complaining about the lack of water) and then Exodus 16:1-8 (the episode about the manna). In what ways are these episodes similar? How are they different?
Digging deeper, think about who begins the grumbling. In Exodus 15:24 and 16:2, we are told that the people and the entire community complained to Moses and to both Moses and Aaron. In this week's portion, B'haalot'cha, we are told that "the riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving.?" (Numbers 11:4) The Hebrew word for "riffraff," asafsuf, is wonderful in that it echoes the repetitive murmuring of the complainers. This small group of kvetchers had nothing better to do than spread their negativity. By verse 10, matters are really out of control: "Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent." (Numbers 11:10) Can we generalize and say that self-satisfaction, which Rabbi Cohen associates with complaining, is often fomented by a small group? Can this episode be viewed as a cautionary tale for contemporary Jewish communities, i.e., congregations?
The plea made by the Israelites in this week's parashah is, "If only we had meat to eat!" (Numbers 11:4) The Hebrew is ambiguous. Commentators note that a reasonable translation could also be: "Who can give us meat to eat?" The latter translation renders the complaint much more serious. When we interpret the complaint in this way, we see that the Israelites were questioning God's power. Some have suggested that this is the explanation for Moses' extreme reaction: "Kill me, I beg You!" (Numbers 11:15), as well as that of God's: "For you have rejected Adonai!" (Numbers 11:20) Which translation do you think suits the context better? What other implications does each one elicit?
In Numbers 11:22, Moses himself seems to question God's ability to provide for the Israelites: "Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?" To which God responds, "Is there a limit to Adonai's power?" (Numbers 11:23) The rabbis were very troubled by this exchange. Rashi quotes the Talmud, in which Rabbi Akiva suggests that Moses was, in fact, questioning God's power. Rabban Gamliel, on the other hand, interprets Moses' question to mean that the Israelites were so difficult that they could never be satisfied. The latter interpretation seems to suggest the reason for Moses' loss of patience with the people. Which interpretation do you find more satisfying?
Rabbi Akiva's response has one major flaw: Why was Moses punished for simply striking the rock in Numbers 20 and not for questioning God's authority overtly, as he does in this portion? Rabbi Akiva teaches that Moses' transgression at the rock was that he failed to invoke God's name, thus shaming God publicly. In our portion, Rabbi Akiva argues, the transgression is private and, therefore, less severe. Can we derive a modern application from Akiva's teaching? When is it appropriate for us to complain publicly? What are the standards for questioning authority? How can we apply these guidelines to our own family situations, as well as to society?
For Further Reading:
Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), Nehama Leibowitz, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980.
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868