I have taken a great number of education and psych classes, beginning in undergrad and continuing all the way through my last course for my doctorate. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in insightful workshops, many with a focus on relationships, mentoring and parenting skills, issues of self-esteem and the wide variety of learning styles. And, I think had any of those classes studied B’haalot’cha, this week’s Torah portion, we would have found some discomfort with God’s reaction toward a people, as it is written, ‘who complained bitterly.’ God was incensed, God was very angry, and Moses was distraught. On the one hand, no one likes to listen to complaints, but on the other hand, these are people who suffered, struggled, and survived circumstances that few of us could have done.
I would rather think of our people as scared, overwhelmed, unsure of the road ahead, and in need of assurance, guidance, and a sense of safety, rather than folks who complain. “Oh why did we ever leave Egypt,” the people wept, each person at the entrance of his tent. Is it really so difficult to understand why it may have seemed easier to stay put with the known, rather than move forward into the unknown? We, or people we know, do this all the time – Some stay in poor relationships for fear of starting fresh; others remain in counterproductive jobs for fear of failure in something new. Some children are afraid to read aloud or attempt a new math page. But rather than express their fear of failure or their sense of unease, people may “complain” which may even sound like whining…”I don’t want to go to school, I hate math… there’s not enough food in the desert.”
Every year, for as long as I have been here (1980), I created a Confirmation presentation of pictures using the old-fashioned slide projector. I knew how to do this without ‘blinking an eye,’ but one day, long ago in 2008, Rabbi Cohen, who had great faith in me, suggested I move into the 21st Century with PowerPoint and digital pictures rather than my go-to, ‘pics made into slides.’ I gave it a whirl, but I was not a happy camper. I learned a great deal about myself that fateful day when I struggled for close to 6.5 hours with 120+ pictures on an uncooperative computer that froze and played disappearing tricks with every other picture I tried to size. I’m fortunate that God was way too busy to listen to my whining, for otherwise a fire for sure, would have ravaged the outskirts of my office (“The people took to complaining bitterly before the Eternal. The Eternal heard and was incensed; a fire of the Eternal broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp” B’haalot’cha:11:1).
Instead, Rabbi Cohen, like Moses, had the burden of listening to my exasperations. But for a few moments, I misled him, moaning that I was too old to accomplish this task. But in truth, my yearning to stay with the security of slides had absolutely nothing to do with a lack of desire to learn something new or an inability due to my advanced age –chuckle. I loved a challenge, and I was more than capable to take one on. I had gone from a simple potholder in 8th grade to teaching myself tailoring skills to make several suits, prom dresses, and bedding. I’m self-taught in knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, and embroidery – creating wimples, blankets, and full-size memory quilts that took hours and hours to complete – and I never whispered a complaint.
The tech world, however, was a different story. One needed a mindset to simply be willing to experiment- without reliance on a written instruction guide. It’s now second nature for me to insert fabulous pics and transitions, but it was not 13 years ago.
Fast forward to this past year. “ZOOM – what in heaven’s name is ZOOM,” a question so many of us asked. We struggled, stumbled, had frozen screens and were “kicked out” of meetings. And we ‘complained,’ not because we weren’t capable, but we were suddenly out of our comfort zone. We saw the error warning popping up on our screen, sending us into a tail spin. “Help, Rabbi Heaps, my techy guru! I’m on the verge of throwing my computer out the window!” First the slide project fiasco and now living on Zoom. Oh how I whined!
I suppose there are some complaints that can be defined as annoying, spoiled-like behaviors. They test our patience and bring out the worst in us. However, some complaining should be re-named as expressions of discomfort or, perhaps, even fear. It may involve us, our students, our peers, our loved ones, who are not really complaining but are putting out a call for help. I would think that many of our ancestors, finally free after 400 yrs of slavery berated themselves for their own complaining behavior. “What is wrong with me…how could I even think that it would have been better to have stayed in Egypt? Just deal with the manna…deal with the hardships of the desert …Look how angry God is, look at the despair on Moses’ face. Am I so lacking in strength that I just cannot deal?” A good therapist would have come in handy to help folks not be quite so hard on themselves. With some space and hindsight, I certainly understood my own reaction to the PowerPoint project and finally faced the fear head-on with wonderful success.
Our people suffered through years of slavery. They saw their children die and the elderly crumble. Now hunger and thirst in the wilderness, the future unknown…we can certainly understand their fears. Although not to be taken literally, I still often find the descriptions of God’s wrath and anger very unsettling. At times like this, I prefer to put Torah down and look at my notes on positive reinforcement, patience, and encouragement. Although a strong hand is sometimes clearly needed and natural consequences must be experienced, let us never lose sight of a healthy balance, allowing the scales to tip toward a gentler side of life, aiding both the individual labeled as complainer and the poor soul who needs to listen.
Wishing all of you a peaceful Shabbat Shalom.