March 28, 2020

Behind the Kvetch

A guy gets a Labrador and he can’t wait to show him off to his neighbor. So when the neighbor comes over, the guy calls the dog into the house, bragging about how smart the little guy is. The dog quickly comes running and stands looking up at his master, tail wagging furiously, mouth open in classic Lab-smile position, eyes bright with anticipation. The guy points to the newspaper on the couch and commands: “fetch!”

Immediately, the dog sits down, the tail wagging stops, the doggie-smile disappears; he hangs his head, looks balefully up at his master and says in a whiny voice, “Oh! My tail hurts from wagging so much. And that dog food you’re feeding me tastes absolutely terrible. And it’s so hot in here. And you’re not giving me any treats. And I can’t remember the last time you took me out for a walk….”

The neighbor’s jaw drops.

“Ah,” the dog owner explains, “he’s a little hard of hearing. He thought I said ‘kvetch!'”

Jews have a reputation for kvetching. It’s a type of catharsis for many of us — a release valve built into a gene pool that has weathered the worst of the human condition. Many people think that this only indicates that many Jews are pessimistic doomsayers, and that we’re just waiting for the next pogrom to surface. This, they say, proves that Jews tend to see the cup not half-full, but half-empty. I say otherwise.

Our Torah portion this week spends just 11 verses on all the blessings that will befall our people if we follow God’s mitzvot. The bulk of the portion, however, graphically details all of the terrible retribution that will befall us if we fail to hearken unto the Lord. Why is this? Shouldn’t God be keeping up with modern psychology that tells us to accentuate the positive? Why isn’t God offering us more positive incentive, instead of terrifying us with all the calamities that will befall us if we don’t listen?

The simple explanation is that, despite conventional wisdom, negative incentive is far more effective than positive incentive. If I want to make sure my little 4-year-old won’t run into the street, I stand a better chance of success by threatening her with a serious penalty than if I promise to buy her a toy for staying on the sidewalk. When it comes to the really important, life-and-death issues — gloom and doom works.

Because God realizes how vital the Torah is to our lives, he uses scare tactics more than rosy guarantees. God, more than anyone, knows that our flawed, human nature is most influenced by negative incentives.

But I think there’s another reason why there are so many more curses than blessings in the Torah. Consider all the blessings that we already have: our health, our families, food on the table, a roof over our heads, all the things we tend to take for granted. God comes into the picture and says: If you listen to me, not only will I let you keep everything you already have, I will increase the blessings in your life from an 80 to 100. But, if you don’t listen to me, here’s a list of all the things that you already enjoy that I will now take away from you, and you’ll go from an 80 to a zero.

It’s thus no surprise that the list of things we stand to lose is much longer that the list of things we stand to gain, for the simple reason that our list is already so long. We’ve just forgotten how rich our lives already are. The list of curses in the Torah is only there to remind us how blessed we are, and how much we stand to lose if we don’t appreciate the Giver of those gifts.

Maybe the Jewish stereotype of kvetching stems from the Torah’s emphasis on the negatives in life. But that emphasis is only there to remind us how rich our lives already are. Kvetching is good if, after a good whining session, we then finish off by saying, “But, kenahora, I still have my health,” or, “I still have my spouse,” or, “I still have my family,” or, “I still have my _____.” Putting life into this perspective allows us to sit back and enjoy the overlooked blessings of life.

May we be blessed to recognize what we’ve already been blessed with, and enjoy those blessings everyday.

Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh.