My wife and I have a running joke, that I think has been going on since 2007. Noa and I are both Jewishly overeducated. Noa attended JTS for undergraduate studies, majoring in Jewish philosophy, and continued on to get a masters in Jewish Education. After serving as a Jewish educator for more than a decade, she eventually went the straight and honest path and became a medical professional. I of course went to rabbinical school on the opposite shore of these United States, in Los Angeles at the Ziegler School. In our respective educations, we studied the two of the great, dominant luminaries of 20th century Judaism - arguably the two most important Jewish philosophers of the era - Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Mordechai Kaplan. We each adopted some of the wisdom teachings of these titans into our own world views - or perhaps, in truth, we express our own endemic viewpoints of the world by invoking the names of these thinkers to back ourselves up. To be a Heschelian, of course, is to be in constant awe of the world - to be blown away by the natural world and to expel gratitude and joy for it at every moment. To be a Kaplanian is a bit more long and complicated, and would involve me explaining God according to Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back - a force that binds us and surrounds us - as well as various and sundry excursus about Jews as a historical people at a given epoch ; chosenness ; putting a pool on the 3rd floor of your synagogue ; and so forth. And none of that matters, because my wife and I don’t joke about being heschelians and kap-lanians. We joke about being either Heschelians or Complainians. A complainian being someone, of course, who whines and complains all the time.
Jew are notorious complainers. The famous joke on the matter is the waiter who approaches the table at the new york city deli after the food is served and says to the four old Jewish ladies “so, ladies, was anything good?” The book of Numbers, if we are being reductive, is an entire book dedicated to the Jews complaining - about the wandering, and the food, and water, and how good they had it in Egypt, and the leadership, and so forth. As a Jewish professional of 20 years, I have worked at religious schools and day schools and summer camps and synagogues and JCCS - in five different cities now.. The one constant - is the complaining. The Talmud class is too hard. The Talmud class isn’t substantive enough. The Judaics department isn’t rigorous enough. My child should read hebrew better with what I pay you people. The curriculum is watered down. The programming isn’t interesting. The building isn’t clean or orderly. They don’t use the lecha dodi tune I like. The rabbis sermon is boring. When I was young, it was so much better.
Why do we complain so much? I don’t mean Jews, really. From my journeys and discussions in the world beyond the Jewish people, I know that complaining isn’t really a Jewish thing: it’s a human thing. We feel compelled to complain. We describe the events of our day to our partners or the latest thing that happened to us or our latest interaction with our parents to one another, and more often than not, we complain. We’re annoyed. We’re frustrated. I mean, I get it. To a great degree, it makes sense. We see something that is imperfect, and we note aloud what is imperfect about it. That is completely logical. The thing is - everything is imperfect. Everything. Literally nothing is perfect. That is, to some degree, the nature of the universe. The minute you have cleaned the kitchen to perfection, you’re hungry, you make a sandwich, and there’s a dirty dish to clean. The millisecond something becomes pristine - it advances forward in time to being imperfect once again. And we overwhelmingly notice the imperfection before we notice anything else.
This week’s Torah portion has one of them more perplexing lines in the Torah about complaining. In chapter 2 verse 21 we read the following :
וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמׇת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָה׃
“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” What’s notable immediately here is that the Israelites complain about slavery now, and not a chapter earlier. It was the King that died who enslaved the Israelites. It was that king that made them build the store cities of Pitom and Ramses. It was that king that was afraid they were becoming too numerous and threw their babies in the Nile. But did they cry out back then, at the beginning of slavery? At the beginning of infanticide? No. It seems that it isn’t until that entire previous era of the last king is past that we get a complaint.
Now, that is one possibility - that the Israelites don’t complain until now. But that seems strange. The other possibility is that the Israelites were complaining under slavery and in the face of infanticide, but God did not hear their cry. All of a sudden now, a political generation later, God hears their moaning, and remembers the covenant with Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and responds. This other possibility is also strange - what, God doesn’t care for years about their suffering, and all of a sudden, God cares? God suddenly remembers the covenant - what, God forgot about us? This too is a problematic answer.
Additionally, there is a linguistic oddity in the phrasing of this complaint. It doesn’t say ‘And the Israelites complained, and God heard them.’ It says ‘the Israelites were groaning’ and then it says ‘and their cry rose up to God’ and then ‘God heard their cry.’ There’s that weird intermediary step - their cry rose up to God - like something needed to move or deliver the complaining to the proper department for rectification. ‘Oh no I’m sorry Mrs Goldberg. You don’t want the divine department of agriculture’s farm labor office for this issue, you want the department of labor - subdivision for irrigated farms of the lower nile valley for your complaint. Please hold for that department.’
I will give two answers to the questions posed here. Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk, the Tiferet Shlomo, who died in 1866, answers it this way. He says “at first, the Israelites cried out from the labor. But then they stopped, and questioned their complaining. Who are we to call out over these conditions? The labor is miserable, sure. Only when they cried out out of the fact that they were spiritually brought low did they understand that their souls were suffering. At that point, their cry rose up to God, because it was a need from their souls which only God could fill.” In other words, the complaint was intrinsically linked to their very being as humans - it wasn’t just a piddlin little annoyance, but rather a deep need from their very humanity. A cry doesn’t rise up to God if it isn’t of a spiritual nature.
We all have to complain about petty stuff sometimes, and that’s why we warn our loved ones that we need to vent and then complain about the traffic or the TPS report you boss told you you filled out wrong. But we also need to have the perspective to know the difference between petty complaints and soul-crushing call out to God level complaints. We complain too much, and more importantly, we complain about small stuff, and that makes it hard for us to differentiate the small stuff from the big stuff.
There’s one other thing here, lurking behind the commentary of the Radomsker Rebbe. And that is - that complaining isn’t good for your soul. If you perpetuate and regularize a viewpoint of the world that is negative, you invoke negativity, and it darkens your soul to your fellow humans. You see them not as they are, but as their flaws. It makes it hard to live up to many of the mitzvot of the Torah, about being kind to one another, and loving your fellow, and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, because it locks one into a mindset where the negativity and the complaining is the baseline, the default. The complaint of the Israelites to God is only legitimate when it truly is soulcrushing, but to take all your complaints into your very soul might cause God to stop responding.
The second answer as to why the cry is not made, or answered, until later, is hinted at by the next line in the torah. “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. And Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.” Rabbi Shmuel Weinberg, the Slonimer Rebbe who died in 1916, thinks it should be read ‘And God took notice of them, and Moses’ - that Moses noticed the cry of Bnei Yisrael. From this we learn that the righteous of a generation can have specific impact when they take notice of a problem, when they feel the pain of the nation. This is the lesson, also, of Dr Martin Luther King, alav hashalom. Dr King saw the crisis of his generation was civil rights, and later on he saw other crises like economic inequality and the war in Vietnam, and he called them out. And the people took notice, and God took notice, and change was instigated. We in our generation look to the righteous and to leaders to indicate what injustices must be rectified - to differentiate low-level mundane bellyaching from real and important complaints, so that we catch them before they become intractable problems.
Because there are legitimate things to complain about, but we each individually have a responsibility to maintain perspective, so that we’re complaining about income inequality, or housing affordability, or unlivable conditions in the Allegheny County Jail, or abortion rights, or racial injustice, and not about our petty concerns which are unimportant in comparison. The last note I’ll make is that the next thing Moses does after God hears the Israelites is he acts. He becomes part of the movement to free them.
Complaining is fine - but only if you are going to get involved in a solution to the problem. Complain less. See the ways in which something is good and holy more-so than the manner in which it is deficient. Complain about the right stuff, and the important stuff. And when you do complain about the important stuff, remember to act on it for the good. Shab Shalom