The desert is not a happy place for the Israelites. We spend much of the Torah repeating the same story over and over again: the people sin, God punishes them, the people ask Moses to make it stop, Moses prays, the punishment ends, and wherever they are gets named after the events that happened there. It happens over and over and still the Israelites never learn from it.
Three verses that appear in our Torah portion are a story in and of itself:
The people took to complaining bitterly before God. God heard and was incensed: a fire of God broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to God, and the fire died down. That place was named Taberah, because a fire of God had broken out against them.
How can we understand these three verses? This short piece is a complete story in and of itself. What can we learn from it. We all know that it is not good to complain, there must be something else here that we can learn. The Torah does not tell us what they were complaining about, it is up to us to interpret the text and determine why they are complaining.
Our sages read these three verses and understood them in different ways.
Rashbam assumed that the people were complaining because of the journey. The preceding verses mention that the people had been marching for 3 days after leaving Sinai. For him, the context was simple, after 3 days of walking in the desert the people began to whine.
Rashi thought something similar, that the people were murmuring to themselves, and not so quietly “woe is us, three days on the move without a moments rest from the hardships of the trip” and that God is angry because of course God was moving them quickly, Rashi imagines that God responds “I meant it as a favor to you - so you could enter the promised land as soon as possible”
Ibn Ezra understood that the sin was complaining itself. He looks carefully at the word choices and says that the word used to describe the complaining is mitonenim, which he says is related to aven, to transgress. What they are complaining about is not clear, so it must be the complaining itself that God objects to.
And then Nachmanides thinks something else altogether. First he openly disagrees with Ibn Ezra, a reminder to us all that Reform Judaism is part of a legacy of Jewish discussion about what the text really means.
Nachmanides tells us that Ibn Ezra is wrong, that is complaining is a sin the text would tell us, just like it does in other places.
Nachmanides thought that once the Israelites left Mount Sinai, which was relatively close to a settled area and moved into the heart of the wilderness of the Sinai they began to feel sorry for themselves. “What are we going to do? How will we live in his wilderness? What will we eat? What will we drink? How can we stand this toil, this torment? When will we get out of here?”
He says that the word mitonenim is instead related to ben-oni, Rachel’s original name for Benjamin which is an expression of pain and feeling sorry for yourself. He says they were “like” people who were complaining, they spoke out of desperation, as those suffering from pain do.
Abrabanel says that the key is “like” c’mitonanim, that they were not legitimately complaining, they did not believe their complaints, they were just testing God.
There are so many ways that our sages understand these three simple verses, but it is clear that complaining, is not a good thing. We know that, in looking for wisdom from the Torah, we already know that whining is bad - so there must be more that we can learn from these verses.
These three verses describe the what the Israelites experience in the the desert over and over again after receiving the commandments. After this short description, the Torah goes on to detail another incident of complaint and divine punishment, this time filling in all the blanks.
This time the people are complaining about the food, they are sick of mannah and they want meat.
By this time both Moses and God are fed up. When the people complain to Moses that they want meat, Moses then complains to God that he would rather be dead than to deal with the Israelites any longer. That toxic whining drives Moses not only to not be their leader anymore, but in a fit of drama makes him not want to live any longer.
And God responds as a frustrated parent would, telling the people that if they want meat they will get so much meat that it will be coming out their noses.
Now everyone is miserable, the Israelites, Moses and God. And why? Our sages are careful to remind us that the mana was not so bad, that it was like Marry Poppins cough syrup, tasting like whatever you want it to taste like. This makes them wonder about the true source of the complaint asking for meat and longing for the vegetables of Egypt. The Israelites seem ungrateful, unable to recognize the miracle of mana in the desert, unable to appreciate food that is provided that they do not need to work for, unable to celebrate their freedom from slavery because they are so focused on what they do not have.
We all know people like this. People whose constant complaints make us want to get as far away as possible. We have all been like this at one time or another, either feeling sorry for ourselves or just so frustrated with what we perceive around us that we are the ones complaining, that we are the ones unable to experience gratitude for all that is going well.
Knowing it is a problem and doing something about it are two very different things. Our text makes it clear, over and over again that it is a hard lesson to learn, and that knowing we should stop complaining and actually stopping are two different things.
Judaism is really all about cultivating our sense of gratitude and wonder at the world. One could say that taking the time to stop and appreciate the Shabbat kiddush wine is a cure for whining, but it goes much deeper than that.
Our prayers encourage us to develop a sends of gratitude, to recognize and appreciate what is good in life. But even beyond that the title of our Torah portion can help guide us.
This weeks portion is called Be’ha’alotekha, which means when you step up, it is connected to the root, aliyah, to go up. We are told Be’ha’alotekha et hanerot - when you step up to light the lights. We all have an opportunity to light the lights, to step up and make the world a brighter place. We can choose to wallow in complaining or we can choose to step up and light the lights - to light the lights of gratitude and joy - and to spread that light to others. When we embrace the light and pass the flame onto others we can fill the darkness with love and gratitude and be a blessing to each other.