But Who’s Complaining?

Imagine there is something you have worked and hoped and longed for your whole life. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine.) Just when you are on the cusp of
achieving/getting/doing/being it, a door slams in your face, and you learn that you will never live out what you dreamed. What occurs to you in that moment? What do you do next? What do you say — or wish to say — to the one slamming the door?

This is where I am supposed to tell you that answers to those questions appear in this week’s Torah portion. But they don’t. The answers appeared four Torah portions ago.

In Parshat Pinchas, God clarified that, despite speaking to Moses about how property should be allotted in the Promised Land, Moses would never lead the people there, nor set foot in the land himself. God’s harsh decree at Mei Merivah, where Moses hit the rock, would stand. Decisively, finally, God closed the door on Moses’ dream.

Moses’ immediate response was: “Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai’s community will not be like sheep who have no shepherd” (Numbers 27: 16-17). Please, Moses asks, choose someone who can lead the people with loving care; find someone to carry on the work and the vision; make sure the military, spiritual and emotional needs of my flock are met, so that they can go to — and remain in — the Promised Land.

Twelve chapters and 426 verses later comes our Torah portion, Vaetchanan. Moses finally does what most of us would have done immediately: he complains. He blames the people: “Adonai was cross with me on your account.” (Deuteronomy 3:26). He rehashes history and pounds on the closed door. The meaning of the word “Vaetchanan” is “he pleaded.” Moses petitions, praises and pleads. However, he quickly realizes that God’s decision will not be overturned. He will never have his dream.

Moses is not at his most generous in this Torah portion, but his accusations and disgruntlement humanize him. His appeal to God makes him accessible to us humans. Moses wanted something for himself. He asked, in effect, “What about me?”

This question should come as no great shock. The shock is that it took 12 chapters and 426 verses to get there.

What took so long? Moses was busy doing God’s work, imparting to the people the information they would need to know in this new land, negotiating apportionments, designating cities of refuge. Pleading his own case simply had to wait.

How many of us put the tasks and ideals of our work ahead of our own personal status? How many times, when faced with a crushing disappointment, do we think first of others and how they will bear it? How often, how quickly and for what duration do we complain? Within two verses of his complaint and God’s rebuke, Moses is back to the business of imparting God’s word to the people.

Have you followed the story of the Rev. Will Bowen, who asked his parishioners to take a 21-day “complaint fast”? To cultivate gratitude, he suggested that people voice no complaints for 21 days. As of this writing, 5,907,266 requests have come in for the “complaint-free world” rubber bracelets that the reverend gave out to his congregation as a learning tool. He distributed them with the recommendation to switch the bracelet to your other wrist every time you complain. When the bracelet stays on one wrist for three weeks, you will have formed a new habit. So far, out of almost 6 million people, 231 report a successful 21-day run of complaint-free speech.

Yes, there is something natural, human and probably inevitable about complaining. As the people who raised murmuring to a high art during the desert trek with Moses, Jews may have more precedent to complain than others. I once invented a game called “alphabetical kvetch,” and I have rarely had a problem getting Jews to play along.

I don’t think we can eliminate complaining. Not only do we need righteous protests against inequity, we need, sometimes, to plead, carp, cry or just vent. Bowen himself felt the need of a phrase that he and his wife could use to express irritation without feeding it. Whenever tempted to complain about anybody, they say instead, “I bet he sure can whistle.”

Abstinence from complaining for some period of time is a noble spiritual exercise, but I wouldn’t ask, long term, that people stop complaining entirely. I would ask — and I personally aspire — to shift the energy and the odds. On any given day, let us express more gratitude than complaints. Let us wait longer to complain and jump in faster to thank, praise, and give. Let us remember our dreams and serve them — even if we can’t experience them exactly as we might like. Let us be a little more like Moses and a little less like that neighbor of yours — you know the one, the very close neighbor — who sure can whistle.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana (www.makom.org). She aspires to achieve 21 days of complaint-free living before Rosh Hashanah and to preach on the High Holy Days about how to crowd out complaining with an overabundance of gratitude and peace.

Hancock Park Shul War Back in Court

The rabbi of a small, embattled congregation is charging that anti-Semites and self-hating Jews are using zoning laws to get Orthodox Jews out of Hancock Park as an epic eight-year legal battle heads back to court.

Nine neighbors filed a complaint last month asking a judge to bar the congregation from using two homes — one under construction on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street and the rabbi’s residence on June Street — for daily and Shabbat services.

The neighbors say they welcome diversity and are simply interested in maintaining Hancock Park’s architectural integrity and residential quality, which they say was the intention of the zoning law the congregation has been trying to skirt for the last eight years.

With vast, lush landscaping and mansions in Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean-revival styles built mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, Hancock Park is recognized as one of the most attractive neighborhoods in the city. Over the last few decades, it has also become a heavily Jewish neighborhood, along with nearby La Brea Avenue and Beverly Boulevard.

Hancock Park is zoned for residential use only, and Etz Chaim relies on a controversial federal law that allows religious institutions to override local zoning codes. Chaim Rubin, Leader of Congregation Etz Chaim, has been quite aggressive in his assertion that the suit is motivated solely by neighbors’ aversion to having religious Jews in Hancock Park, which decades ago had restrictive covenants where Jews and blacks, among others, were barred from owning homes.

“They think they are going to stop me. I am not going anywhere. I am here to stay. It is my congregation and we are going to serve God and practice our religion as we see fit because this is guaranteed to us in the United States of America,” said Rubin, whose father founded the congregation in his June Street home 30 years ago. “I don’t live in Poland anymore, I don’t live in Germany anymore and nobody can come in and tell me I have no right to practice my religion.”

Somewhere amid the stark assertions of anti-Semitism and civic duty lies a more nuanced truth where divergent ethnic lifestyles and allegiance to a religion or to civic pride have pitted neighbor against neighbor in a tale with parallels across the country. Similar cases nationwide have pitted religious institutions against homeowners trying to return full zoning control to local communities, and the issue is expected to reach the Supreme Court in the next five years.

The Etz Chaim case hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court for Sept. 8.

This is not the first time that Etz Chaim, with about 40 worshippers on Shabbat and 10 to 15 men at a daily minyan, is involved in a legal battle.

The congregation, which purchased the home at 303 S. Highland in 1995, lost repeatedly before zoning boards, the City Council, local courts and the state Superior Court in its effort to acquire legal rights to pray in the home. After President Clinton signed into law in September 2000 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalize Persons Act (RLUIPA), giving religious institutions the right to override local zoning laws, the city attorney’s office entered into a settlement under which the congregation could use the Highland Avenue building in a limited capacity.

The neighbors’ July 10 complaint to U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp contends that the February 2002 settlement agreement amounted to the city issuing a conditional-use permit (CUP) — which would be necessary to house a religious institution in a residential zone — without the public hearings and notifications that usually go along with the CUP process, violating the plaintiff’s rights to due process.

On Aug. 6, the congregation filed a motion to have the charges dismissed, saying the plaintiffs have no standing to sue since residents do not have rights to make claims about the zoning of neighbor’s property, according to Susan Azad of Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles, lawyer for the congregation.

The plaintiffs also accuse the city of violating church-state separation by according special treatment to the congregation in not halting its allegedly illegal use of the rabbi’s June Street home while the Highland home is under construction.

The city has not yet responded to the complaint, but in a separate action the city claims that the extensive remodeling violates the settlement agreement, which called for the congregation to do minor upgrades to the property while maintaining its residential character.

In June 2002, much of the original 3,600-square-foot building was demolished, and an 8,150-square-foot building (1,600 feet of which are underground) is going up in its place. The renovated house, set to be finished sometime this winter, will include a “living room” with a large dome ceiling and a balcony for services, and a library and classrooms upstairs. Rubin said the building will be landscaped and have no signage indicating it is a shul. The renovations total about $1 million.

“Once we had to redesign the building and to make the changes required in the settlement agreement, we felt that it would be worthwhile to make it look very beautiful and make it accommodating for all of our needs,” said Rubin, emphasizing that the Department of Building and Safety issued permits for all the remodeling.

After the congregation demolished the building, the city asked the Department of Building and Safety to issue a stop-work order, contending the extensive renovations violated the settlement. Construction was halted for several months until the court granted the congregation’s motion to have that stop-work order lifted. Earlier this month, the city filed an appeal to that ruling.

“That structure suggests a rather brazen determination to flaunt what the rabbi believes to be either his rights under civil law or some divine calling,” said Leonard Hill, a television producer and Hancock Park resident who is president and a founder of the newly formed League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates, which is funding the lawsuit.

“The only reason we are doing this is we believe that this is a wonderful place to live and we want to turn it over to future generations with the same sense of historical integrity, peace, tranquillity and openness that currently makes it such a special place to live,” Hill said.

Underlying the plaintiff’s suit is the belief that RLUIPA undermines the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution.

“The real question is, does the federal government from Washington get to dictate which landowners get special treatment in land use projects, or do local communities get to determine how land use is done?” asked Marci Hamilton, co-counsel for the plaintiffs with Leslie M. Werlin of Van Etten Suzumoto & Becket in Santa Monica.

Hamilton, an RLUIPA expert and professor of church-state law at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, argued a case before the Supreme Court in 1997 that resulted in the court declaring unconstitutional the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law similar to RLUIPA.

Hill — a Jew who spent time on kibbutz and in yeshiva and was bar mitzvahed at Sinai Temple — has little tolerance for the claim that the opposition is controlled by anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. “The rabbi is unwilling to engage in substantive debates about equal protection, separation of church and state, historic preservation and maintenance of neighborhoods, responsibilities to neighbors — all that goes by the way and, instead, the red cape of racism is immediately raised by the rabbi in an effort to cloud the true merits of the debate,” Hill said.

But Azad wonders why neighbors — who in the suit cite two large bar mitzvahs at the June Street home — are not as outraged by other large parties in the area.

“If the city is going to cite Rabbi Rubin for inviting people into his house, they would have to go after all the people who have Girl Scout meetings and book club meetings and the other things people normally do when they invite people into their house,” she said.

Kids Page

You know that harmless-looking body part inside your mouth? The tongue? It sure looks nice enough, but it gets a lot of Israelites into trouble in this week’s parsha. Do you remember getting a present and then complaining it wasn’t enough? Not the right video game; not the kind of scooter you wanted. Often, your parents end up giving you what you want, but they might get pretty mad in the process. Well this time, the Israelites complain about the manna. “We want meat! We want more!” they shout.

God gives them what they want, but gets pretty mad at them. Was it worth it? Miriam and Aaron get into trouble, too, when they use their tongues to spread gossip about Moses’ wife, Zipporah. So, think about that tongue of yours. It’s more powerful than you realize.

Special Friends

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing essays and poems by children who won the San Fernando Valley fifth-grade writing contest. The theme of the contest was: My Special Friend. Awards were given out by the California Writers’ Club on May 25, at the Encino Community Center. Meirav Fishman Cafri, 12, of Northridge, wrote the first-place essay. She is finishing up at Napa Elementary School in Northridge. She is the youngest of four children and is one of a set of triplets.

My Special Friend

My special friend is God. The reason God is my special friend is because He is the ruler of the Earth and has created me. He has dealt kindly with me throughout my 12 years. He is always there for me when I am going through good and bad times. He is even there for me when I need him most. No matter where I go He will always be watching over me. God has helped me through school and is still helping me through school. He is always where I need him most. He is keeping me alive and strong. I love him with all my heart. He always helps me through my injuries no matter how bad they are. Even when I behave badly, he does not or never will give up on me and that’s a fact.

What’s the Beef?

A number of years ago, during the O.J. Simpson trial, I had a conversation with a non-Jewish merchant who told me that right after Simpson was arrested, he met a good friend of Simpson’s at church. At the conclusion of the service, the merchant happened to stand right behind this man as he thanked the minister for his homily and then asked him, "Reverend, would you please pray for O.J."

The minister replied, "Yes, of course. But let’s also pray for the victims as well."

Needless to say, this response outraged Simpson’s friend. He interpreted the comment as disparaging to Simpson. Due to his respect for the minister, however, he kept his feelings to himself and waited until he left the church to vent his feelings to anyone who would listen. He announced that he was so upset that he was going to write the minister a letter of protest.

After telling me this story, I asked, "Do you mean that the man restrained himself and did not tell his minister how he felt?"

The merchant replied, "Oh no! No one would ever beef a minister to his face. But just think of it. He had the gall to think he could write such a letter to him."

After allowing me to absorb this story, the merchant asked me, "Rabbi, do you ever have such problems with your members? Would any Jew dare write a letter to you?"

I simply answered "Oh no! Jews never write letters," and left it at that. I didn’t think it would enhance our stature if I told him the real facts.

Actually, as this week’s Torah portion illustrates, we Jews may have invented the art of "beefing," of telling someone off, especially when there is justice in the complaint.

The biblical beefing may have been spontaneous in its ultimate delivery, but it developed over a 21-year period during which time Laban systematically swindled Jacob. First, after Jacob worked loyally and cheerfully for seven years without pay to earn Rachel as his bride, Laban tricked him into marrying Leah. Next, after working for Laban for 14 years, Jacob could not call any of the fruits of his labor his own. As the father of a large family, this disturbed him so that he could not help but ask, "When shall I provide for my own house also?" (30:30).

Laban’s final deceit, his attempt to turn all agreements with Jacob to Jacob’s disadvantage, impelled Jacob to take his family in the middle of the night, without telling Laban, and leave for the land of Israel. Laban, as we know, gave chase, and finally caught up with Jacob’s camp. However, even when he hypocritically admonished Jacob for leaving in such a fashion, Jacob remained silent. Only after the wicked Laban ransacked Jacob’s belongings, finding nothing, did Jacob become angry and "took up his grievance with Laban" (31:36).

Jacob’s self control for 20 years, followed by a final indignant outburst against Laban, teaches all of us an instructive lesson: No matter how good a reason we have for anger, we must try self-control. Only when no other recourse remains, is anger an acceptable alternative.

Recently, a young man told me that ever since his father’s death he had felt a sense of guilt, because he doesn’t miss his father. It seems the father had been overly critical of his son. Nothing his son did was good enough. And now the son felt a weight had been removed from his shoulders. He came to me and asked if he was sinning for feeling this way.

I replied that inner feelings are not a sin; it is the actions we perform that count. I told him to learn from his father and judge everyone else with a good eye. Like the biblical Jacob, we must learn forbearance. Like Jacob, we must restrain from "beefing" our fellow man until there is no other alternative. If we can remember this lesson, we will find life itself so much more enjoyable.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.