What do you do with a bunch of whiny complainers! Complaint after complaint: The food is bad; the air conditioning is not cold enough; the air conditioning is too cold; my roommate is a slob; my roommate snores; the program is boring; I’m bored. It never ends. And it’s so tedious.
Perhaps this is the way of the world. Throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers there is a long list of complaints: the longing for the “good old days” in Egypt, despising the manna given by God and demanding instead meat, the report of the spies, the rebellion led by Korach against Moshe and Aaron’s authority. On the surface these are a variety of sins; in reality they all come back to the same sin – incessant complaining.
In the middle of our parashat Beha’alotcha we find the Israelites grumbling. This isn’t the first time that the Israelites complain. We first read about complaints in Exodus right after the miracle of having walked on dry land through the Sea of Reeds. It was then that God provided the manna that showed God’s commitment to take care of the Israelites. In Numbers 11:1-2 we read:
The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed; a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses, Moses prayed to the Lord and the fire died down.
We don’t know what the complaints were about; we simply know they were annoying enough for God to bring a punishment of fire.
Then, at Numbers 11:4, only four verses later, there are new complaints. This time it was initiated by the erev rav (translated by some as the “riff raff”). After all that had happened – the miracles, the exodus, the division of the sea, food from heaven, water from a rock, the revelation at Sinai and the covenant that went with it – the people, yet again, complain about the food. And not because they were hungry; they were merely bored.
If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free – and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. (Numbers 11:4-5)
As for the miraculous bread from heaven, although it sustained them it had ceased to satisfy them: “Now our appetite is gone; there’s nothing to look at but this manna!” (Numbers 11:6)
Complaining displays our lesser nature. We fail to see what we have. There are always more things to desire. If only I were prettier. If only I had nicer clothes. If only I had the perfect job. If only I had the perfect partner. If only… The list goes on and on. Ultimately we do not find that perfect combination of things that prop up the exterior parts of our lives. Ultimately things do not make us happy. And so we complain.
The next character trait articulated in this incident is boredom. The Israelites are bored with the manna. While many of us had experienced food insecurity before coming to BTS, how many times do BTS residents complain that the food at BTS is routine and boring. Programming is boring. The residents complain: “We are bored!”
Incidentally, what does constant complaining do to those of us to whom complaints are directed? In this week’s parashah Moshe reaches his lowest ebb. In Numbers 11:11-13 he asks God:
Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the burden of all these people on me? … If this is how You are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me … and do not let me face my own ruin.
In the earlier incident of complaining Moses had prayed to God to stop the fiery punishment. At this juncture Moses has had enough. He experiences failure, defeat and the looming abyss of despair. He can no longer advocate for the Israelites. They are on their own.
What is the solution? Where in our character can we look for a way out? We do not appreciate how blessed our lives are. We must open up the other place within ourselves where gratitude lives. Here at BTS we are taught the lesson of gratitude. We learn to live in gratitude. Every week at Friday night services we have an opportunity to share how grateful we are. Gratitude is one antidote to incessant complaining.
I believe that the parashah teaches us another lesson. It is the lesson of second chances. Thus, perhaps there is also another way to look at our behaviors. There is another approach we must look at.
Earlier in the parashah Moses learns from God about second chances. Pesach Sheni, that is, “Second Passover,” is another chance for some of the Israelites to celebrate freedom from slavery. Here is how we learn about second chances. During the second year after leaving Egypt the Israelites “kept the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at dusk.” (Numbers 9:5) However there were a group of people who could not bring the Passover sacrifice:
… there were certain men who were unclean by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and Aaron on that day. And those men said unto him: “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:6-7)
Moses was flummoxed and went to inquire of God what he could do for these men. God understands the need for a second chance.
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD; in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:10-11)
It is God who teaches Moses that every human being is entitled to a second chance. This lesson resonates for us here at BTS.
This parashah presents the Israelites complaining, but it also emphasizes the possibility of a second chance. Here at BTS we open our arms and welcome people seeking a second chance. We laud our residents when they succeed, and, in most cases, give residents another chance. You, who may be “on a journey afar off,” can come to BTS where you are offered a bed, meals, a team to care for you and programming to enrich you. You have a second chance. But please, stop the complaining. Find something to satisfy your boredom – help a friend. Embrace gratitude for that second chance.
Chaplain Deborah Schmidt