Sometimes it is helpful—even essential—to complain.
More commonly, our complaints are not really about what they purport to be, but are, instead, symptoms of a poor attitude in need of adjustment.
Ecclesiastes famously teaches that there is a time and season for everything. So it goes with complaining. If no one complained about unjust, inequitable, and intolerable situations, nothing would change for the better. We need whistle-blowers and activists—justified complainers—to speak out against the unacceptable status quo. Thus, early in the Torah’s exodus narrative, the Israelites complain about a real lack of food and water, and God responds respectfully, providing them with what they need.
However, most of the time our complaining is merely the outward expression of our own inner negativity. In such cases, our whining is not ameliorated when we get what we supposedly want, for we will always find a new excuse to keep up the kvetching. There is no limit to the potential objects of discontent for fundamentally dissatisfied people.
Such is the nature of the complaining in this week’s portion, Beha’alotecha. The Israelites carp at Moses: “Who will feed us meat?” Yet, as Rashi notes in his commentary, they actually have plenty of meat to eat. Torah tells us that when we left Egypt, “A great multitude went up with them, and also flocks and cattle.” Forty years later, as we prepare to enter the land of Israel, Torah again points out, “The children of Reuben had much cattle.” In other words, the Israelites had no shortage of steak. As God and Moses both recognize, their craving and complaining is not really about the meat. It is, instead, a reflection of the Israelites’ own failure of faith and imagination.
This week, every time you are tempted to complain about something, consider your motivation. Are you questioning the status quo in order to change it for the better? Or are you just giving voice to your own, deeper discontent? If you can honestly affirm the former, then speak (and act) up! If not, then reflect on ways to shift your attitude.