Most of us associate being a complainer with being spoiled. The two seem very much to go hand in hand. If I am spoiled I typically expect to have things my way. When that does not happen my response will most often be to complain. And the contrary also seems true. If I am a person who has little expectations, who appreciates whatever I get, I will likely remain grateful even when things are hard and I do not have it my way.
Knowing that,it becomes difficult to understand the behaviors of our ancestors in the wilderness. The Torah, this week,in the parsha of B'haalotcha, begins a series of stories in which the Israelites complained over their circumstances. The Torah says, "And the Nation were as complainers, and it was evil in the eyes of Hashem...".
One complaint follows another. The final one in this weeks reading was a complaint over the lack of meat. In the end G-d brought them meat in what looked like a heavenly gift,but what was in fact a food that caused their death. The People stuffed themselves with the meat, the object of their desire, for some 30 days until over-fed of it, it killed them.
We might well wonder how did this nation who only recently escaped the cruelty of Egypt and a life of deprivation become so spoiled. The Torah tells us they complained, "...We remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, and the melons, the leeks,the onions and the garlic. But now our soul is dried up, there is nothing for us but the manna". Can you imagine a people freed from the grasp of death and despair, a nation whose prospects were essentially hopeless complaining like spoiled children when they don't get what they want? Talk about revisionist history, the Israelites made Egypt into Gan Eden!
How did a people raised with enduring hardship become so spoiled?
And let me ask another question, which while at first may not seem related,may well turn out germane. When Hashem tells Moshe to advise the people that He will provide meat for them, Moshe is astonished. Moshe said, "The nation is composed of 600,000 men on foot and You say you will feed them meat for a whole month! If flocks and herds will be slaughtered for them will that be enough? If all the fish in the sea are brought to them will that be enough?"
What is Moshe asking here. On first blush he seems to be doubting G-d's capacity to feed the people. Yet how is that possible. Moshe knew the power of the Divine better than anyone. He was the instrument of Hashem to perform miracle after miracle,many far greater than producing food to feed a nation. How do we explain a passage that on simple explanation reflects a lack of faith on Moshe's part?
The rabbis of the Talmud were bothered by the same question. One, Rabban Gamliel explained that Moshe, of course, knew that G-d could feed the people. What he wondered about is to what end would that serve? Moshe saw the People's complaint as rooted in something much more basic than the content of their diet. He said to Hashem "They are only looking for an excuse to complain...If you give them thick meat they will say they want lean.If you give lean they will say they want thick..." Rabban Gamliel explained that Moshe knew that the complaint of the people was never really about food.
And the verses actually support Moshe's insight. The Torah at the outset of the reading states "And the Nation was "k'mitoninim", "as complainers...." Why does the Torah say "as". It should simply say they were complainers! The answer is very much as Moshe realized. Sure they complained,and the complaints were specific. Yet he knew in reality it was all a ruse,even if they were not themselves conscious of it. The complaints reflected a deeper malaise.
So then what was the real issue here. If the People were not really spoiled what was triggering their resentment?
The answer is self-evident. Our sages long ago taught "Avda b'hefkaira neecha lai", "A servant will always prefer to be morally free". It was not the diet of the Israelites that engendered their complaint. Former slaves don't complain when they don't get roast beef each night for dinner. But they do complain when they are now encumbered with all kinds of moral imperatives, things they did not have to worry about when they were servants of others. They don't want laws telling them what they can and cannot do,who they can and cannot marry. They resist the morality imposed on them.
Indeed the problem with the Israelite's complaint with their circumstances was that it was false, prompted by a hidden agenda. It was not their desire for meat and fish that both G-d and Moshe found "evil" as the psukim indicate. But rather their underlying desire to free themselves of the Yoke of Heaven.
Whats the lesson for us here? How are we like our parents of the wilderness generation?
I believe the lesson is real and telling. We too so often complain,or excuse ourselves citing a specific issue, while in truth hiding both from others and ourselves a deeper and more sinister problem.
Let me give some examples. The man or woman who goes out on an endless series of dates, in each case giving reason why their potential shidduch was unacceptable. Could it be that if they were honest with themselves they would realize that the problem isn't with the other but with themselves, that they really don't want to marry or commit? Are they not like the Israelites,complaining about the meat and the fish when its really about their own desire to be free of commitment?
Or let us think about ourselves as parents. We excuse our anger at our children. Perhaps, when we are furious at their behavior, we say to them cruel and hurtful things. Yet we argue,"I can't help myself. They make me so mad." Here too, I wonder if the problem is with the situation or with us. If we truly gave ourselves over to the work of parenting, if we made being a good parent our commitment and total resolve, would we not change the way we react? Here too isn't the real issue not with the "meat and the fish" but with our level of commitment!
And finally I ask you to think with me about our avodat Hashem. So often we make excuses for our behaviors. Perhaps we speak lashon hara or we don't say bircat hamazon properly or any one of a hundred things. In each case we make an excuse saying the circumstances were difficult for us to negotiate. Yet are we not hiding from ourselves the real issue.Its not about the individual avairot. For them we can make excuses. Rather the real issue is that like our ancestors in the wilderness, we have not yet committed ourselves to become avdai Hashem, servants of our Father in Heaven. Yes,we observe. We keep the mitzvot. And yet we remain in our own mind free agents,unwilling to fully surrender ourselves and our lives to Him.
The story of the parsha of this week challenges us to stop fooling ourselves and to get real. Remember our fathers and mothers in the wilderness perished with their excuses. The very things they said they needed to have to satisfy them wound up killing them when they got it. To avoid their fate we need to unmask the hidden agendas and face our core truths. Its the only way to move beyond excuses and to really make change!