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
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
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.
starts so early. The first word of many
a child is “Mine!” Thus begins a life of
striving after ownership. Much of
American culture is built around this propensity to crave and accumulate, with
multi-billion dollar industries manipulating us to want stuff we don’t need.
course, as Ecclesiastes recognized long ago, this is a kind of vanity, a
striving after wind. Indeed, it is far
worse than empty gesture, for the impulse behind “mine!” is at the heart of
much of our human unhappiness. No matter
how much we acquire, the urge for more is never satisfied.
this crushing human propensity to possess stuff (and sometimes people, too),
our weekly portion, Behar, offers
what I believe to be the most radical teaching in the entire Torah. Consider its words:
‘When you come into the land which I shall give
you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the Eternal. Six
years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and
gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall
have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord;
you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard.
‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of
years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the
seven sabbaths of years, namely,
forty-nine years. . . It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own
property, [e]and each
of you shall return to his family.
‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold
permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with
is extraordinary. Every seven years we
give the land a compete rest and every fifty years we redistribute it so that
no one is left poor and landless. This
guards against the grossly unjust distribution of wealth that increasingly
undermines both America’s and Israel’s economy.
It also reminds us that the assertion of “Mine!” is ultimately idolatrous,
for in the end, all of Creation belongs only to the Creator.
if an America politician were to propose such a policy! This is not a platform upon which one is
likely to get elected, in either of our major political parties. Yet here it is in our Torah, as a core part
of its vision of a just society and a critical antidote to our consistent
craving for more power and possessions.
It may not become economic policy any time soon, but it remains
essential for us as a way out of the trap of materialism into which we
David Thoreau reminds us that “in wildness is the preservation of the
world.” Why? Because what is wild is, by definition, that
which cannot be owned. This is why Torah
was given in the wilderness, a wild place, open to all, possessed by none. As we move toward Shavuot and our celebration
of receiving Torah, consider: how can I open myself to more wildness and escape
the clutch of my impulse to insist upon mine?