Why Do We Complain?

June 21st: Beha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we open the Ark, the tradition calls for us to intone these words: “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, and Your foes flee before You!” (Numbers 10.35) Though our Ark is not the same as the ancient Ark, and though we are not going anywhere, we say these words to invoke God’s help. May the Torah which we are about to read help us to banish whatever enemies we may face.

We may be worried about people or nations who threaten us. There are bad people in the world, and we pray that God will help us elude or defeat or survive them.

We should also be worried about the enemies that dwell within—that threaten the purity of our purpose. Greed, selfishness, impatience, and arrogance are just some of the enemies that inhabit our minds and our spirits, and they can be plagues. Our religion teaches us that the Torah’s wisdom can help us battle Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Inclination. Perhaps, this is why our Torah service also includes this meditation from the Zohar: “Beh ana rachetz…O may it be Your will to open our hearts to Your Torah and to fulfill the worthy desires of our hearts and of the hearts of all Your people Israel: for good, for life, and for peace. Amen.”  (Zohar, Vayak’hel 369a)

Note how the passage qualifies the prayers that we hope God will answer. Realizing that our hearts may not always rise to highest heights of morality, we pray that God fulfill “the worthy desires of our hearts…for good, for life, and for peace.” Our prayer is that God’s Presence—as manifested and experienced in Torah—will help us and improve us, helping us to bring forth the Divine we all carry within.

Of course, we can be resistant. In this week’s Torah portion, we read about our ancient ancestors’ curious discontent. Despite the fact that we had been saved by God from Egyptian slavery and rescued from the murderous charge of the Egyptians (into the Red Sea), and despite the fact that God had chosen us and given us the Ten Commandments, and despite the fact that we had plenty of manna to eat, many of us were profoundly unhappy. “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to see!” (Numbers 11.4-6) The Torah follows this complaining with a description of the manna: “It was like coriander seed, and in color it was like bdellium. The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like rich cream.” (11.7-8)

The Rabbis in the Midrash go further and say that it tasted like whatever one desired, but even this was not enough. What would it have taken to please us?!

Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) suggests that it was not the taste that led to the dissatisfaction, but rather an internal attitude.  To feel prosperous, he observes, enough is not enough. To feel prosperous, one must have more than others. Since everyone had manna—and all that they needed, no one could feel the ego surge of having more than someone else.

Another possibility is simply that there is something in the human heart that always wants more—that wants what we do not have. I certainly suffer from this foolishness, and I think it is endemic in much of the world. As we read in Ecclesiastes (1.8), “The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing.” We always want more, and giving up possessions or the possibility of more possessions can be horrifying. As we read in our Yizkor Service, “Like a child falling asleep over a bed full of toys, we loosen our grip on earthly possessions only when death overtakes us.”  Thus does the ancient Ben Zoma counsel us, “Who is rich? One who rejoices in things already owned.” (Avot 4.1) Was this a statement of fact or an aspiration for his own soul?

There is also the passage in the Shabbat benediction in the Amidah which is one of my favorites, “Sab’aynu mituvecha, Teach us to be satisfied with the gifts of Your goodness.” Or phrased another way, we can pray, “May we learn satisfaction, and delight in the blessings we are given.”

When we stand before the open Ark and pray that God’s “enemies be scattered,” here is a way to mean the prayer: “Advance, O Lord, into our hearts! Let the enemies within be scattered! May the foes of satisfaction and happiness within flee before You! Thus will we be granted the grace and the peace You would like us to have.”