There is an old Jewish joke about the prominent businessman who gets sick and is taken to the best hospital in town. A few days later, he abruptly transfers to a small hospital nearby, which is best known for its mediocrity. When he arrives, the attending physician is intrigued, wondering why this man left a world class facility to come to his humble hospital. So the attending quizzes his new patient about the previous hospital.
“Was the medical care not good enough?”
“No, the medical care was remarkable, with one doctor more brilliant than the next. I can’t complain.”
“Was the nursing care OK?”
“The nurses were absolute angels. I can’t complain.”
“What about the food and the rooms?”
“The food was exceptional, truly restaurant quality; the hospital rooms were just redecorated. I can’t complain.”
Finally, the doctor asks: “So why did you come here?”
“Here…I CAN complain!”
There is no shortage of Jewish jokes about “kvetching.” Kvetching is more than just a Yiddish translation for complaint, and there’s a vast difference between the quotidian kvetch and a noble protest. Instead, kvetching is a sort of whining or whinging, punctuated by sighs and served up with melodrama; it is both an attitude and performance art. And for reasons unknown, kvetching found a home among the Jews of Eastern Europe.
But kvetching is very much out of place in Western culture. It runs counter to a tradition of uncomplaining courage, what the British call a “stiff upper lip.” Aristotle writes that those of a “manly nature” don’t share their pain with others because they don’t want to burden their friends. Immanuel Kant endorsed a stoic attitude with regard to pain, explaining that “complaining and whimpering, even crying out in bodily pain, are unworthy of you.” In the classic poem “Invictus,” the poet declares that he will accept his difficult fate head on, and that:
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
In the United States, there is a culture of compulsory cheerfulness, and all complaining is marginalized as “negativity,” something that brings down the collective good mood. Scanning the shelves in any bookstore, you can find titles such as “The No Complaining Rule,” “The Complaint Free World,” and “No Complaints: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Own Joy,” pushing us to be forever cheerful. Grief and sadness are frowned upon; even tragic events like funerals are supposed to be a “celebration of life.” It is improper to honestly answer the question, “How are you doing?” The only acceptable reply is: “Great!”
Immigrants from other countries sometimes don’t realize that in America, the question is a request for an upbeat platitude. Instead, they will offer an unexpectedly lengthy and open answer to this question. A friend of mine, who worked for Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, had to counsel new immigrants not to answer this question honestly. In a culture of optimism, everything has to be “great!”
Certainly kvetching is not the Jewish ideal. The Mishnah tells us that the truly wealthy man is the one who is content with his lot, not one who complains about its shortcomings. The Tanakh emphasizes over and over that the man of faith does not complain and places his trust in God. And because of this, it is tempting when reading this week’s Torah reading to look down our noses at the complaining Jews in the desert. Grieving and crying, they complain that they are sick of eating manna; it is just too boring. Then, the complaint jumps to the absurd, when they say they would rather return to Egypt, whereof the former slaves “remember the fish that we used to eat for free … the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Yes, the Jews in the desert say they are ready to return to the house of bondage just to find a better restaurant. At first glance this looks silly, and we are tempted to dismiss them with condescension. But actually, the lesson of this parsha is how ordinary and human kvetching is.
What is fascinating about this narrative is that everybody complains, without exception. The grumbling begins with the mixed multitude of people who joined the Jews during the Exodus; they complain that they miss meat. One would expect this group, who were already freemen in Egypt, to be the first to complain; they had the most to lose and least to gain by leaving Egypt. Then the grumblings catch on with the Jews, who miss the fish they were able to catch at the river, along with “the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” that they ate at their slave master’s tables. But the grumblings don’t end there. Moshe, overwhelmed by the complaints of the Jews, responds with a bitter complaint of his own. And it is this complaint that is most dramatic, when Moshe asks: “Why have You punished Your servant?” Moshe tells God he would rather die than continue on as the leader of the grumbling Jews.
What is fascinating about this narrative is that everybody complains, without exception.
The lesson of these cascading complaints is simply this: everybody kvetches. It is not limited to a mixed multitude of Egyptians or the weak-willed former slaves; even the central hero of the Tanakh, Moshe, joins in on the complaining.
Instead of mocking the grumbling masses, the Torah wants us to recognize that we’re not very different than them. And we really aren’t. Don’t we also pay an inordinate amount of attention to the garlics, leeks and watermelon in our lives? We plan meaningful celebrations like weddings, kiddushes, bar and bat mitzvahs, only to fight about, criticize, and otherwise get hung up on the menu. Kvetching is universal, not just a childish habit that people will simply grow out of.
So how does one end kvetching? Yes, one could use the two methods mentioned before, and maintain a stiff upper lip or put on a happy face. And at times, it is important to do exactly that. But the problem is that changing one’s outer demeanor will often fall short. Both of these methods require us to suppress our actual feelings; afterwards, we are often left grumbling inside.
Our Parsha offers its own guidance on how to deal with kvetching. We are not demanded to change human nature. Instead, we are invited to reflect on who we are. Our perspectives, priorities, and sense of purpose shape us; we only complain about things that we consider important. In the end, an empty soul will always be dissatisfied.
We are not demanded to change human nature. Instead, we are invited to reflect on who we are.
Why did the Jews grumble about the manna? A careful reading of the text indicates that their complaint arises from a lack of spirituality. The text interweaves the story of the complaints about meat (and the quails God sends in response to the complaints), with another story about Moshe’s disciples receiving the gift of prophecy. As Elchanan Samet points out, these two stories are linked by the Hebrew root word for gathering, which is “assaf.” The people are gathering the quails that land around the camp at the same time that Moshe is gathering a group of future prophets. The contrast is clear: some gather birds, while others gather inspiration.
The text also hints that a confusion of values leads to this grumbling. When telling the people to ready themselves to eat meat the next day, the word the Torah uses is “hitkadashu,” which in most other contexts means to “make oneself holy.” Here, it is used in an unusual way, to mean “prepare.” This invocation of religious language to describe an upcoming meat delivery is meant to mock the perspective of those clamoring for tastier meals; they are worshiping food, and consider a pound of flesh to be sacred. And when you worship food, you will always complain about the menu. Someone with a purpose driven life will have a sense of gratitude, and appreciate the divine blessings of freedom and goodness.
Kvetching will never cease; as long as desire exists, so will disappointment. Even though our current standard of living far exceeds that of previous generations, we can still find plenty of things to complain about. On the contrary, better living conditions breed even higher expectations. There is even a term for this type of complaint: first world problems. The renowned psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski relates an anecdote about his own first world problem:
“I had just bought a new car, fully loaded, and was very upset that the cruise control was not functioning properly. That day, a woman who was eight months into recovery from alcoholism stopped by to tell me about her good fortune. ‘I found an apartment that I can afford. Now that my son is going to school all day, I can take a full-time job. I might save enough money to get my car fixed,’ she said.
‘What’s wrong with your car?’ I asked.
‘It doesn’t have a reverse gear,’ she said
‘How do you drive without a reverse gear?’ I asked.
‘You just have to be careful where you park,’ she said. ‘At least I have a way to get around—there are some people who don’t even have a car.’
I felt pretty meek. instead of being grateful that I had a fully loaded new car, I was griping because the cruise control was not working!”
A broken cruise control is truly a “first world problem.” Our first instinct is to kvetch when something like this happens; and that has been true since the very beginning of time. But the parsha is a guide for how to properly relate to these first world problems. We must never forget to focus on our purpose, recognize our priorities, and keep our sense of perspective. If we do that, menus and cruise control malfunctions won’t matter.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.