“And the people were like complainers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord” Numbers 11:1
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It has often been said that there is one sport our community has mastered since its earliest days— the sport of complaining. We love to complain about everything from food to politics and everything in between but why have we mastered this seemingly Jewish skill? Michael Wex argues, in his entertaining book Born to Kvetch, that we have unprecedented experience in complaining since it’s been core to our people since biblical times.
The Israelites always seemed prepared with a complaint even at the most unusual times and this week’s sidrah is a prime example of our ancestor’s superior affinity for murmuring. Shepherded through harsh desert conditions with shelter and food, this privileged people turn on their leader, insisting life in Egypt was better. They demand fine foods including meat, fish and vegetables, claiming “our soul is parched without anything, we have nothing to look at except manna”. How could slavery in Egypt have been any better?
At the heart of a complaint we often find two elements. Selective memory (or koach d’shichicha in Jewish teachings) and perfectionism. The Israelites appear to suffer from extremes in both. This mistake is so grave it brings their leaders to their wits’ end. God’s “anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them and consumed one end of the camp”; Moses exclaims he cannot carry on.
But the powerful elements behind complaint can also achieve great good since they are built on positive energy and optimism. Selective memory and perfectionism can be the foundations for a renewed vision of hope and enthusiasm. When we reflect on the past or consider the future, we should try to shed the culture of kvetch and forge a new and optimistic tradition for our people. Soon enough we may even be masters at a new game.