November 11, 2019

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 ( 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.