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B'ha'alot'kha 5783 - Complaining for the Sake of Complaining

June 10, 2023 - 21 Sivan, 5783

At Swarthmore College, the students often played what we called “Misery Poker.” It sounded something like this:

“I stayed up all night studying for a test today.”

“I stayed up the past two nights writing a paper.”

“I’ve been working all week on a project, while battling the flu!”

…and so on. Not realizing we were playing the game, we would up the ante on misery, showing who could grumble the loudest and most pathetically. The irony, of course, was that we signed up for this and were paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to suffer. We chose our own classes and had full ability to reshape our schedules. By playing Misery Poker, at the end of the day, we were mastering the art of complaining for the sake of complaining.

While the first triennial reading of our parshah displays ritual devotion to God, beyond that first triennial, the parshah begins to unravel when the Israelites start complaining once more:

וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י ה׳

“And it was that the people were like complainers of badness in the ears of Adonai” (Numbers 11:1). Commentators have a field day with the “like” in “like complainers of badness,” and Seforno’s commentary is one of the most realistic. They weren’t complaining about anything real, Seforno teaches; rather, they were complaining to test God and Moshe. In other words, they were complaining for the sake of complaining.

While I’m sure no one here ever complains just for the sake of complaining, other people in the world may sometimes complain just to get their voice into the conversation. They may complain because they’re bored or in a bad mood. And they may complain about something entirely valid, but something they themselves could work towards fixing. Complaining is certainly important to bring attention to situations that need improvement, and yet, complaining can bring attention away from the good. Complaining can offend those who worked hard to make things the way they are. And complaining can distract the speaker herself from gratitude towards the world around her.

The next time you open your mouth to complain, take a moment to reflect on the words you are about to say. Are you complaining about something you could fix yourself? If so, you may choose to change your words to a request for help with the fixing. Are you complaining in a way that could hurt the feelings and efforts of others in the room? If so, you may reframe those words in a way that communicates your respect for those individuals. And are you complaining about something inconsequential or about something no one has the power to change? If so, you may want to rethink the need for expressing that opinion at all. Instead, substitute your complaint with an area of gratitude. Your complaint may even come from a general feeling of sadness or anger, and if that is the case, either express what is truly bothering you or find a physical, concrete way to seek comfort.

Complaining certainly has its place; it lets others know the difference between right and wrong. It lets those in power know change is necessary. Sometimes, it promotes bonding between those experiencing hardship. Throughout the wilderness, God did not strike anyone down simply because of complaint. Rather, the problem in the wilderness of Sinai and today, comes when so much complaining happens that it blinds us from the real motivations behind the complaint. Today, we have the ability to consciously choose our words, to leave complaining for when it is truly necessary, and to do that complaining in a way that is compassionate and productive. 

When I think back to college, I wonder how the tone of the room would have shifted if we had responded to one another not with our heightened complaints, but rather, with acknowledgement of the struggle we were each feeling. I wonder how many more relationships would have been built if we had paused in between each ante and gave each other the resources to work through our challenges. When we consciously complain or refrain from complaining, we have the opportunity to choose whether we are k’mit’on’nim, sort-of-kind-of complainers, or expressing our opinions with real intention towards change.

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784