Complaining the Jewish Way

Schwartz, a wealthy Jew, took ill in Boston. The medics rushed him to the best hospital, Mass General, where he received VIP treatment. But, after one week, he requested to be transferred to Beth Israel, a much smaller and less prestigious hospital.

At Beth Israel, an intern gathered the courage to ask what went wrong at Mass General. When Schwartz replied that nothing was wrong, that everything was fantastic, the bewildered intern demanded, “Then why did you transfer to Beth Israel?”

“Because,” answered Schwartz, “here I can complain.”

Complaining seems to be endemic to the Jewish people, a trait going back to our earliest roots. At the end of last week’s Torah portion and at the beginning of this week’s reading, we are confronted with people constantly complaining. Instead of being grateful for what Moses and Aaron were trying to do, the Israelites accuse the two of prejudicing Pharaoh against them, and of inciting the Egyptians to murder them (Exodus 5:21).

In many respects, we might consider the reaction of the Israelites and the frustration of Moses as expected and normal. These are typical human sentiments. We might ask, however, what was God’s response to this entire episode? What was God’s reaction to the complaints of the Jewish people?

In what appears to be a cryptic response, the Torah records, “God spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them, regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the Land of Egypt” (6:13).

The classical biblical commentator Rashi asks, What did God command Moses and Aaron when it states, “And He commanded them regarding the Children of Israel”? Rashi answers, “He commanded Moses and Aaron to lead them calmly and to be patient with them.”

Even when the People of Israel are difficult, the Jewish leader can’t give up. The Midrash further explains that God told Moses and Aaron to ignore the complaints and, “command them to prepare the wooden boards for the building of the Tabernacle.” The Jewish leader must never lose focus that his job is to lead and not to become frustrated. A Jewish leader must build the infra-structure of the Jewish community no matter what the people say.

It always amazes me that when I return from a trip to Israel, the ubiquitous question is, “So how bad is it?” We expect to hear that Jews are fighting one another, and we assume that the media’s portrayal of doom is correct. But the truth is different. Certainly, Israel has its problems, but everywhere one travels, unparalleled building is occurring.

On a recent trip to Israel, I found what the papers don’t report. I went to the Golan and heard the nonreligious leaders of Kazrin report that both the religious and nonreligious work in harmony. In Migdal HaEmek, I heard the nonreligious mayor of the city praise the city’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Grossman, as a man of vision, whom everyone loves. I visited a religious Moshav in the Galilee and listened to the leader describe how all of the settlements in the area work together, religious and nonreligious.

Certainly, we have mastered the art of complaining. But we must also know how to highlight the wonderful accomplishments of our people. Like Moses and Aaron, modern Jewish leaders must learn to ignore complaints and concentrate instead on encouraging the building of our people.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.