Once upon a time an Israeli bumped into a newly arrived Soviet immigrant on the streets of Tel Aviv.
“So, really, how was life back in Russia?” the Israeli asked the immigrant.
“I couldn’t complain,” the immigrant answered.
“And how were your living quarters there?”
“I couldn’t complain.”
“And your standard of living?”
“I couldn’t complain.”
“Well,” responds the Israeli, “If everything was so good back in Russia, why did you bother coming here?”
“Oh!” replied the immigrant, “here I CAN complain!”
This week’s Torah portion finds the Israelites departing mount Sinai and beginning their journey toward the promised land. Immediately, they begin to kvetch. Their main complaint is about the Manna that they have to eat each and every day.
And they don’t just mutter quietly under their breath.
The Israelites complain so bitterly that Moses pleads to God to kill him rather than allow the situation to continue.
This complaining is really bringing Moses down. In fact, complaining brings everyone down –
even the complainer.
Think about it. Try to remember the last time you complained about something: how did you feel as you were voicing your displeasure? When I think about the sensation of complaining – how I feel when I’m sharing my distaste or dissatisfaction with someone else, I can feel the physical manifestations – my voice changes; my shoulders droop; I sigh; my body gets heavy.
Complaining, literally brings a person down.
And when someone else is complaining to you, your physical response is likely not all that dissimilar.
So imagine what an entire nation of complainers must have felt and sounded like!
The very air they breathed must have seemed heavy with tension.
A midrash, in a rabbinic text called Me’am Loez, suggests that when the Israelites complained,
they did so for two reasons. Firstly, they did not know whether the manna would truly appear each day – in other words, they did not yet have faith in God.
Secondly, although, as the midrash describes, the manna had many and varied tastes, it did not contain the staple ingredients they had become accustomed to while living in Egypt.
Rabbi Alan Berg teaches that although the Israelites experienced “a plenteous miracle” it, “wasn’t plenteous enough for them.” They lacked what Rabbi Berg calls “sufficiency consciousness” –
that is, the realization that they had enough to be secure.
Without faith and without the ability to realize that they had enough to sustain themselves, the Israelites misuse their time and energy – spending it by complaining bitterly, (something that usually drives people apart) instead of using it to express gratitude (something that often brings people together).
But perhaps God sees this coming.
At the beginning of our portion, we read a seemingly unrelated passage, where God gives Moses instructions for how Aaron and his sons, should go about lighting the seven lamps on the lampstand in the Mishkan.
Lighting this lampstand – the original Menorah – was understood by the rabbis to be a metaphor
for how we are meant to live our lives.
Rabbi Berg explains that just as lighting the seven lamps illuminates the menorah, so too does living each of the seven days of the week to its fullest, lighten our souls.
Rabbi Berg writes that in this way, the verse, which literally reads, “when you light the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand”, can be understood in the following way: “When you treat each of the seven days of the week as holy, you will illuminate your soul.”
Just as the Israelites, misuse their time – complaining, when they should be giving thanks – so too do we, in our own lives, often preoccupy ourselves with concern over never having enough: never having enough time; never having enough money or possessions.
“We treat our days as routine” Rabbi Berg writes, “or we miss opportunities for performing mitzvot.”
In order to light the seven lamps – in order to lighten our souls, and live the seven days of each week meaningfully, we too need to have “sufficiency consciousness”, and we too need to have faith. We need to know how to learn when we have enough to sustain ourselves. And we need to have faith that what we yet need will somehow be provided.
Rabbi Berg suggests that living each day it it’s fullest is the key to unlocking these often elusive abilities.
By freeing ourselves from the burden of complaint and lightening our attitudes by giving thanks,
we can train ourselves to focus on what we do have rather than on what we are lacking.
This takes intentionality and conscious effort. It means catching yourself in the moment of complaint, and spinning it into a moment of praise. It means finding the silver-lining in every cloud,
which may seem like a really un-Jewish idea.
The kvetchy Israelites are the prototype for the stereotypical Jew. Like the Soviet immigrant in the joke, we LIKE to complain.
But our Torah portion this week suggests that as “Jewish” as it is to complain about a miracle, the attempt to lighten our souls is EQUALLY “Jewish”.
It may be in our nature to complain, but God and Torah encourage us to have a daily practice of lighting our internal menorahs – turning each temptation to kvetch and complain into an opportunity to express gratitude.
My own personal practice is to end each day – as I’m drifting off to sleep – trying to think of one thing that happened that day for which I am grateful.
Do I remember to do it every single day?
No. Certainly, there are days when I forget.
But I make sure that ESPECIALLY on days that are long or stressful or difficult – ESPECIALLY on days when I’m feeling the heaviness of complaint – on those days I work extra hardto focus my thoughts on something that DID go well.
Rabbi Berg claims that “sufficiency consciousness” is a path to God, and I’m inclined to agree.
As hard as training our sufficiency consciousness is, many would argue that having faith in God is even harder.
I believe what Rabbi Berg is saying is that one leads to the other.
When we focus our consciousness on gratitude, we connect to the Source of All Things, the Entity from which all things come about. And if we believe that God is somehow connected to the things for which we are grateful, we begin to have faith, that each day will bring something good – however small, however fleeting – and if that isn’t faith in God I don’t know what is.
May each of us find one moment on this Shabbat or in the week to come in which to turn our desire to complain into an opportunity to praise, and may that moment bring us closer to our Eternal God
Baruch Atah Adonai sh’asah li kol tzorki
Blessed are you Oh Eternal, who provides for all our needs.