The Times of Israel
Jan 24, 2019
Kvetching and the Divine
Does G-d appreciate our complaining? If not then why is it such a quintessential part of the human condition? Oh, sure there are stoics among us; but most can’t repress the urge to complain about something, at some time.
It appears the propensity to complain is a part of our genetic makeup. Indeed, from an early age, when we are challenged with such thought provoking questions as: how are you; is everything all right; or can I help you; the automatic response is often to express some need or dissatisfaction. Even a seemingly positive response of everything is fine can be couched in a plaintive tone and tense body language to signal the opposite is true. Perhaps, this is the origin of the colloquial term kvetching, meaning complaining. It is derived from the Yiddish word kvetch, literally meaning to squeeze; but, the idiomatic usage, meaning to complain, is more prevalent.
It takes genuine conditioning to trigger a response expressing how everything is copacetic, instead of a complaint. Even more training is required to express genuine gratitude. Why then are we burdened with this negative functionality?
The ability to speak and communicate both our needs and how grateful we are when those needs are satisfied is a fundamental part of our humanity. An essential part of our faith is that we can talk to G-d and G-d is listening. We can ask for our needs and that is what prayer is all about. Isn’t prayer then just another form of complaining?
The Bible recognizes the human propensity to complain. Indeed, the famous groan heard round the world occurred when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. They were afforded some time off to mark the death of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They finally had a moment to groan[i] and cry out because of the crushing burden of their bondage. They may not have expressly appealed to G-d for help; but their sighs were heard by G-d, as if they were a prayer[ii]. It was this collective groan[iii], which precipitated the ultimate redemption from slavery in Egypt. The Bible does not chastise those who groaned and cried out. Indeed, it would appear that they had the right to complain about their plight and G-d responded positively.
Moses’ complaints about the plight of the Jews in Egypt[iv] were also well received by G-d. Imagine the scene, when Moses speaks G-d, after his fateful meeting with Pharaoh. As G-d instructed, he demanded Pharaoh let the Jewish people go. Pharaoh responded by making life far worse for the Jews. Moses takes this up with G-d and, in a direct and forthright manner, asks why did G-d instruct him to do this when it only brought harm to the Jewish people? Furthermore, he confronts G-d with the fact that G-d has also not yet saved the Jews. Wow, now that’s chutzpah. The response of G-d is instructive. G-d does not chastise Moses for his brazenness. Instead, G-d assures Moses that he will witness what G-d does to Pharaoh and how, with a strong hand, the Jews shall be freed[v].
It is, therefore, suggested G-d likes us to complain to G-d and plead for our needs to be accommodated. In this regard, I can’t help but reflect on how my father, of blessed memory, would graciously handle any complaints by customers in his supermarket. These were rare occurrences, but I vividly remember one, where the customer was particularly abusive. I asked my dad whether I should escort the customer out of the store. His answer was most instructive. He said no and went on to explain that as long as the customer came into the store to complain, he or she was still a customer. I kind of think that’s the way G-d might react to our complaints. As long as we are directing them to G-d, we are still faithful customers.
It’s when we complain to others, who can’t actually help resolve the issue that there’s a problem. Worse is when we just complain for its own sake, for no reason and with no expectation of redress. Grumbling about unsatisfied needs and desires to everyone who might listen is not an approach well calculated to achieve a positive result. Often it just reinforces the person’s negative feelings. Grousing can also be infectious and when an atmosphere of negativity is established, it can cloud and interfere with our perception of reality. Thus, even when the needs are miraculously satisfied, those affected might fail to appreciate it. Correspondingly, there is a failure to be grateful for G-d’s graciousness, which only serves to exacerbate the problem. These lessons are driven home in the Bible, including in the Torah reading of Parshat Beshalach[vi].
The people of Israel, who just experienced the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, after the extraordinary exodus from Egypt and the Ten Plagues, are now traveling through the dessert. They are brutal in their remonstration of Moses and Aaron[vii] and complain bitterly that they are hungry. They want meat and bread to satiate their hunger.
Moses seeks to deflect their grumbling against him by suggesting, why complain to him? He urges the people instead to plead to G-d, who can actually satisfy their needs and provide them with meat to eat in the evening and bread in the morning[viii]. Moses tells Aaron to gather the people, because G-d heard their complaints[ix].
G-d then appears and confirms to Moses a meat meal would be provided in the evening and bread in the morning[x]. That night, quail appeared and covered the camp[xi]. In the morning, the people were treated to the miraculous Manna surrounding the camp[xii]. The people feasted on the quail meat that night[xiii] and in the morning ate the Manna. Their hunger was satisfied. For 40 years, the people of Israel wandered the desert under Moses’ leadership and were sustained by the Manna that miraculously fell each day of the week other than the Sabbath.
There are a number of such instances in the Bible where the people complained. Moses was often upset by their grumbling. Nevertheless, in most instances, G-d was more forgiving. Indeed, G-d appeared, nonchalantly, to deal with their complaints, by just satisfying their needs. For example, the Bible reports another instance of profound complaining right after the incident of the Manna, noted above. This time it involved a thirst for water[xiv].
After trekking through the desert for days, the people were parched. They needed potable water to slake their thirst and there was none to be found. The people began to quarrel with Moses and demanded water to drink. Moses’ response was to ask, why were they arguing with him and testing G-d’s patience? Moses was beside himself and cried out to G-d, what should he do? G-d instructed Moses to take his rod and strike the rock. Water miraculously poured out and the people had water to drink.
However, not every incident of complaining ended well. There is the famous one in Parshat Beha’alotcha[xv], known as the Graves of Desire[xvi], which also appeared to involve a craving for meat. Once again G-d showered the camp with quail. However, this time, it resulted in many people dying, with the meat they seemed to desire so much still stuck between their teeth, before they could even chew it[xvii].
Why the disparate treatment for what was apparently the same desire for meat to consume? Was there any difference in the nature of the people’s complaints in Parshat Beha’alotcha, as compared to Parshat Beshalach?
The Chizkuni[xviii] explains that the gift of the quail was meant to be a one-time occurrence and, hence, demanding it a second time was an overreach and wrong. Rashi[xix] takes a more nuanced approach. He critically analyzes the two Biblical texts and concludes there was a fundamental difference between the two incidents. The first time the people asked for meat in Beshalach, they were hungry and asked for meat and bread to satiate their hunger. The second time in Baha’alatcha, their bellies were already full, because they had the Manna to eat. Their insistent and demeaning demands of Moses were not about need; instead, they were all about fulfilling desires.
The Manna was all the people needed to subsist. Indeed, the miraculous food had incredible nutritional qualities[xx]. Meat was not a necessity; it was a luxury. Moreover, as Rashi notes, the people already had an ample supply of meat at their disposal, in the form of the herds of cattle they had with them. Rashi goes on to press home the point about separating needs from desires by concluding they didn’t need meat to subsist. It was about fanciful desires and not basic needs. In essence, their complaints were gratuitous and baseless.
My son Dr. Eli once delivered a Dvar Torah in Synagogue about this subject. To the delight of everyone in attendance, he contrasted the nature of need versus desire in our contemporary existence in Teaneck. One example that drew laughter involved transportation to work. He posited, what we may desire is a fancy, new, needlessly expensive, sports car to serve this utilitarian purpose. What we actual need, though, is a few dollars to pay the fare for a bus or jitney ride along Route 4, to take us from home in New Jersey across the Washington Bridge to work in Manhattan. Need and desire are two very different things. However, I can’t help but wonder does G-d really mind if we ask for more than just our basic needs. Is it wrong to ask G-d to help us fulfill our wildest dreams and desires?
Rabbeinu Bachya[xxi] takes an entirely different approach. He notes that, besides the Manna in the morning, quail meat was also available each evening during the 40-year sojourn in the desert[xxii]. In this context, the complaint about craving meat was baseless and wholly contrived. Moreover, the sarcastic way it was expressed was especially demeaning. As Rabbeinu Bachya explains[xxiii], there was no need to disdain what they had. Deprecating the miraculous Manna, by caustically touting the superiority of melons and cucumbers that were objectively inferior[xxiv], was wholly inappropriate. Mentioning fish was another low blow. The only kind of fish fed to the Israelite slaves in Egypt was of the variety that had already begun to decompose and stink.
This kvetching exercise was not about anything constructive, because the complaints expressed were not real. In this regard, as Rabbeinu Bachya notes, not all complainers are the same[xxv]. Some may be seeking redress for a real grievance they have personally suffered. Others, though, may appear to complain, but they are just acting that way as a pretext[xxvi]. The narrative they espouse bears no actual relationship to the substance of their feelings of discontent.
The incident of the Graves of Desire was begun by a vocal band of a few activists[xxvii]. What they really wanted was to shake off the perceived burdens of the Torah commandments, which G-d revealed at Mount Sinai only a little more than a year prior to this event. They wanted to be free to do whatever they wanted. According to the Talmud[xxviii], this included a desire for the permissive society and lifestyle of Egypt and not the family life and other legal and cultural norms prescribed by the Torah.
Their modus operandi was just to complain loudly and bitterly and inspire others to do so, as well. They mounted what in modern parlance might be referred to as a resistance. They did not overtly complain about having to fulfill G-d’s commandments. This kind of an open break with traditions and societal norms may not have been acceptable to or tolerated by the vast majority of the Jewish people around them. Instead they were more insidious, choosing to fixate on not having meat to eat. They used this as a pretext to challenge the prevailing authority of G-d, the Torah and Moses. The Bible views the use of baseless grievances and contrived outrage, as a pretext for justifying negative behavior, most disparagingly.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? It appears that so much of the news today, involving politicians and other activists, is about calling attention to some cause or another, involving some class of unnamed victims. Why not, instead, actually do something about it and help the individuals, who are genuinely be aggrieved? It often seems like nothing more than a pretext to scream and protest. I can’t help but wonder, why take to the streets when there are available forums with actual decision-makers willing to listen and able to resolve matters?
In the US, we have a system of laws, duly elected executives and legislatures, courts and administrative agencies devoted to handling all sorts of claims and issues. Are these public marches, demonstrations and even riots really about addressing any particular grievances unable to be handled by these wonderful institutions of our vibrant democracy or are they just expressions of rebellion against the existing order? Is it about improving the system or denying it? Are these organized protests being hijacked and misused by some for less than wholesome purposes? What is their real agenda?
The messages delivered by some at the Women’s March this past weekend are a good example. Ms. Mallory and Sarsour, leaders of the March, sought to appear like legitimate advocates of the causes associated with the March; but they were really just using it as a pretext. They are nothing more than garden variety anti-Semites, who misused the platform they were afforded by the March to propagate vile and nefarious anti-Semitic canards. In this regard, I can’t help but note, what do BDS and other anti-Semitic sentiments have to do with the rights of women in the United States? Unfortunately, it also appears that that this kind of insidious behavior is seductive and infectious. Witness the people clapping for these dissemblers. It was reminiscent of disastrous occurrences in Europe during the period of the 1920’s and 1930’s, when extremists of the left and right fought with each other and enlisted so many misguided souls in their effort to overturn, not reform society. The result was the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, which took the lives of countless tens of millions of people.
Let’s focus on redressing actual individual wrongs. That’s how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and others did it successfully in the past. Complaining as a pretext undermines society; it does not further social or other progress and goals.
These, as well as, a number of other lessons about kvetching can be derived from the Biblical texts noted above and life generally. First and foremost, grumbling to others who can’t help is destructive, not constructive. It is a particularly loathsome practice that serves no useful purpose. It’s far better to direct any complaints to G-d. Secondly and just as importantly, don’t kvetch for kvetching sake. It is critical only to complain when there is something to complain about. It should not be used a pretext to foment rebellion or other negative actions.
When properly engaged, kvetching is a form of prayer. In fact, speak plainly, because G-d appreciates our prayers, no matter what form they take. I remember well, Rav Aaron Soloveichik reported he was asked by someone how to pray to G-d. Rav Soloveichik, a graduate of NYU Law School, answered in his characteristic style, what do you mean, just state your case.
Heartfelt genuine complaints to G-d, including crying out in sheer pain and desperation, are the equivalent of prayer. Moses’ language may have been harsh, but G-d is gracious, understanding and forgiving. In this regard, reference may be made to the Book of Job in the Tanach. The Talmud[xxix] reports Moses likely wrote Job and that it was probably a fictional work[xxx]. The Book of Job discusses suffering, complaining and the nature of Divine Providence. Job suffered so mightily that he wished he had never been born[xxxi]. When Job’s three friends visited him, they, in effect, reprimanded him for complaining about his lot[xxxii]. Yet G-d defended Job and rebuked Job’s friends[xxxiii]. As the Talmud[xxxiv] explains, what Job said may have been inappropriate, but G-d does not hold a person responsible for what he says when he is in distress.
Thirdly, take yes for an answer. When we experience something good, it is a gift from G-d and it’s good to recognize it and stop kvetching. There was a wonderful LP record of Jewish humor, called ‘You Don’t Have to be Jewish’. My dad, of blessed memory, would often play it on Saturday nights after the Sabbath. One of the routines involved a man kvetching that he was thirsty. His refrain was: ‘Oy! Am I thirsty’ repeated again and again, driving everyone to distraction. The next voice heard is someone offering him a drink and the gurgling sound of the man greedily slurping it down. When asked if he was alright now, the previously thirsty man responds, ‘Oy! Was I thirsty’, repeating it again and again, to recorded laughter. Is this the way some of the people acted in the desert? Perhaps it was; but in any event it’s a good story.
Finally, always be grateful. The Talmud[xxxv] expresses this in no uncertain terms. It counsels we must bless G-d for the bad just as we do for the good. But to do so we must necessarily mention the bad, as well as, the good. In a sense it elevates what might otherwise be a mundane complaint into a most compelling testament to our enduring faith in G-d. It also helps us maintain balance and good cheer, a fundamental element of a good and meaningful life.
So kvetch away to G-d. It is proof positive of our faith. Rest assured G-d welcomes your prayers, no matter what form they may take. As my father, of blessed memory, stated so well, as long as you come into the store to complain, you’re welcome, because you’re still a customer. May we be blessed to live life free of reasons to complain.
[i] Exodus 2:23.
[ii] Ibid and see Ohr Hachaim and Chizkuni commentaries on the verse.
[iii] Exodus 6:5 and see Rashi and Sforno commentaries thereon.
[iv] Exodus 5:22-23.
[v] Exodus 6:1.
[vi] Exodus Chapter 16.
[vii] Exodus 16:2-3.
[viii] Exodus 16:8.
[ix] Exodus 16:9.
[x] Exodus 16:12.
[xi] Exodus 16:13.
[xii] Exodus 16:13-19, 31 and 35.
[xiii] Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 16:8.
[xiv] Exodus, Chapter 17.
[xv] Numbers Chapter 11.
[xvi] Kivrot Hataavah in Hebrew.
[xvii] Numbers 11:33.
[xviii] In his commentary on Exodus 16:13. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 15b, as well as, Tractate Yoma at page 75b.
[xix] In his commentary on Exodus 16:7-8.
[xx] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page75a-b; Sifrei, Bamidbar 87-88; and Midrash Tehillim 23:2. See also interesting comment by Chizkuni, Numbers 11:6.
[xxi] In his commentary on Exodus 16:13. Interestingly, Rabbeinu Bachya also cites Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 15b, in support of this proposition. See also Tractate Yoma, at page 75b.
[xxii] Rabbeinu Bachya explains the Bible pays greater attention to the Manna, because of its miraculous nature, as compared to the more natural regular occurrence of flights of quail over the encampments.
[xxiii] In his commentary on Number 11:5.
[xxiv] Rabbeinu Bachya notes that Egypt produced excellent food and comparing the Manna unfavorably to Egypt’s most inferior produce was a calculated insult.
[xxv] In his commentary on Numbers 11:1. The Biblical verse describes the prelude to the incident of the Graves of Desire. In the verse, the Bible speaks of the ‘KiMitoneninm Ra’. The phrase literally means those who were like bad complainers. If complaining is inherently wrong, then why does the Bible make mention of the fact that the complainers were bad? Furthermore why does the Bible refer to them in terms of their being ‘like’ bad complainers? Rabbeinu Bachya notes the qualifiers are not superfluous. They refer to those expressing complaints that are not real and merely used as a pretext. I note in passing that Nachmanides, in his commentary on this verse, explains the unique phrasing as referring to a self-inflicted condition and, hence, the complaining was inappropriate.
[xxvi] See Sifrei, Bamidbar 85:1. See also Rashi and Malbim commentaries on Numbers 11:1.
[xxvii] Numbers 11:4.
[xxviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 75a. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, at page 23b and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 130a.
[xxix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 14b.
[xxx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 15a. See also Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:22.
[xxxi] Job, Chapter 3.
[xxxii] See, for example, Job 2:11 and Chapters 4, 8 and 11.
[xxxiii] Job 42:7-8.
[xxxiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 16b and see Rashi commentary thereon..
[xxxv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 54a.
About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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