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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Why Do Jews Complain

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In this week’s parsha, there is a great deal of complaining. The first time, “And the people were murmuring evil in the ears of the L-rd, and the L-rd heard it, and His anger was kindled, and the fire of the L-rd burnt among them, and devoured the edge of the camp. And the people cried to Moses, and Moses prayed to the L-rd, and the fire abated” (Num. 11:1,2).

What were they murmuring about? The commentators find the answer in the text, a few verses earlier: “And they travelled from the mount of the L-rd three days’ journey” (Num. 10:33). The people were grumbling about this tiring three days’ trip. Actually, they were travelling towards the Land of Israel, and they reached its boundary at the end of three days (the desert of Paran). The punishment for this grumbling was quite severe: the fire, which would presumably have killed everyone if Moses had not prayed. Furthermore, those who had complained were not permitted to enter the Holy Land. If it had not been for them, the Jews would have entered the land of Israel immediately after the three days’ journey!

The next incident of complaining occurred shortly thereafter. The people complained that all they had to eat was manna. They remembered the fish, cucumbers, melons, onions and garlic, which they had enjoyed in Egypt, and came crying to Moses for meat. For this they were punished by a rain of quail, enough for a month, and those who ate it were nauseated, and killed by a plague.

Now this second incident seems much more severe than the first. In the first one, the people were exhausted from their three days’ journey, so complaining could be considered understandable, and even justified. In the second case, the people were just looking for difficulties—they were complaining for the sake of complaining, since, as Rashi says, they did indeed have cattle from Egypt with them to provide meat. But the punishment in the first case seems to have been much more severe! How can we ex- plain this?

The answer may be given in the verse which describes how the people behaved after the quail fell: “And the people rose all that day, and all night, and all the following day, and gathered the quail” (Num. 11:32). Then there was no grumbling, although they were gathering for 36 hours! Here they were doing what they wanted to do. But in the three days’ march, which would end in the Land of Israel, the people were doing the L-rd’s will, not their own! Their destination was the Land of Israel, and living there would mean that they would have more mitzvos to perform, about which they were not too enthusiastic. Rashi explains the phrase quoted above, “And they travelled from the Mount of the L-rd,” with the comment: “like children running away from school”: they were afraid that if they stayed longer at Mount Sinai, they might be given new mitzvos! The same attitude caused their grumbling about the journey which would end in the Land of Israel. This attitude amounted to rebellion, and that is why they were punished so severely. The complaint about the food, while an example of lust and therefore not admirable, was not a case of rebellion, and was therefore punished less severely.

When we are doing are own will we find an untapped reservoir of energy. When we do G-ds’ will we suddenly become tired. In Pirke Avos (2:4) we read: “Do G-d’s will as you would do your own will”. This is something we should all strive for. It is my hope that this attitude will be sufficiently great among us all, that as the word of the L-rd spreads, we may enthusiastically perform His will, and thus all merit the Redemption and the return to the Land of Israel.

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