June 8th: Shelach Lecha
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
One of the persistent themes of the Book of Numbers is the complaining of the Israelites. Last week, we read (in Numbers 11.1), “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord.” Though the manna is easy to get and totally dependable, they are tired of eating the same thing, day after day. They want meat and fish and cucumbers and onions and garlic like they used to enjoy in Egypt. Their longing for Egypt really hurts God’s feelings, and it seems as though they are not appreciating all the blessings that have been showered on them.
This week, they complain about the Land that God has promised them. Moses sends scouts to tour the Land and report on it, and everyone agrees that the Land is wonderful—that it “is flowing with milk and honey!” However, ten of the twelve scouts say that the inhabitants of the Land are large, fierce, and undefeatable—describing God’s plan as a suicide mission. Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, try to downplay the difficulties, and they talk about how God is giving them the Land, how God will help them conquer it—how God has the whole process planned. But, the people are inconsolable, and despite the importuning of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, the people do not want to proceed into the Promised Land. So, God agrees with them and decrees that they can wander in the wilderness until a generation arises with more gumption and more faith.
The Tradition sees all the complaining as indications of small-mindedness, lack of faith, and a lack of courage. The Tradition encourages us to have faith and to bravely go on the various errands God’s sends our people—and not to complain.
Sometimes, however, I wonder about the different kinds of complaining and whether all complaining is bad. While presumably God knew what was in the hearts of the complaining Israelites, the complaining that we hear may not all be bad. In fact, one can even see a tradition of complaining or grumbling in our sacred history. While some voices speak with great enthusiasm, others speak with an acute awareness of the difficult things God asks us to do.
This divergence can be seen in a Midrash that has two different endings. The initial message of the Midrash is that Israel is God’s last choice as the chosen people. God wants one of the ancient seventy nations to accept the Ten Commandments and Torah, and God shops around to see if anyone will agree. God asks one group, but they ask for an example of a commandment. When God says, “Thou shalt not murder,” they reject the proposal because they like to murder. Another group refuses God because they like adultery; another group says No because they like stealing. After asking sixty-nine of the world’s nations, God finally comes to Israel, the very last choice.
Here the Midrashim diverge. In one ending, Israel declares, “na’aseh v’nish’ma/we will do and then we will hear,” accepting immediately—without even asking for an example. Thus do our ancestors show their intense devotion to God and duty. The effects of this Midrash are twofold. We praise the holiness of our sainted ancestors, and we hold them up as examples for future generations (us!) to follow.
The other Midrashic ending was created when an ancient Sage picked up on a grammatical curiosity and described a totally different dynamic. He noted the text in Exodus 19, that, when the people received the Ten Commandments, they stood “tachtit hahar, under the mountain.” This obviously means at the foot of the mountain, but the Sage created the image of God holding Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites, forcing us to accept the Ten Commandments. Thus is the story not one of enthusiasm, but rather one of onerousness and ambivalence.
Another indication of Jewish ambivalence about our sacred calling can be found in the Talmudic discussion about gerut (conversion). The big question is when the ger (convert) is asked whether he will accept ol malchut hashamayim/the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yoke? Yokes are heavy cumbersome things, and one figures an ox’s first choice would not to wear his yoke or to use it to pull a heavy load.
We also use this term in the second paragraph of the Alaynu, at the end of the service and right before the Kaddish. The passage reads: “We therefore hope, O Lord our God…that every one will accept the yoke of Your kingdom and You will rule over everyone, soon and forever.” We hope everyone will join us in serving God, but we realize that serving God is like bearing a yoke. (Of course, if one is an ox and will inevitably bear a yoke, then wearing God’s yoke and pulling God’s load are high honors.)
While some Jewish complaining may be seen as disloyalty—and as a precursor to departing Judaism, other Jewish complaining may be more constructive. First, there is the complaining that hopes for improvement. As long as there have been Jews, there have been suggestions about how we can improve our Jewish endeavor. Listening to these aspirational voices is important.
Second, there is the kind of complaining that expresses our dedication. For people involved in difficult work—people like construction workers or soldiers, grumbling is part of the ambience. It is a way of letting everyone know that their challenges are formidable, but, more importantly, it speaks to the fact that they are willing to meet them or weather them in order to accomplish the mission. Thus does complaining become a kind of swagger of devotion.
In the ancient story, the people’s complaining goes too far, impeding the progress and success of the mission. In our modern Jewish story, it is important for us to consider the nature of our complaints. Do we grumble because we do not want to be part of the Jewish mission? Or, are we complaining in an attempt to improve our Jewish work? Or, are we complaining as part of the team, as a kind of affirmative statement about the difficulty and importance of our Jewish work?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once commented, “How strange to be a Jew and go astray on God’s perilous errands!” These errands may be challenging. They may even be perilous. But, the work we are assigned as Jews is God’s work. Though we may grumble, we know that God needs our devotion.