We hear a great deal of complaining in portion Beha’alotecha this week (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16). The Israelites complain that they are tired of manna. Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses. Moses complains about the Israelites. There is a harsh response to each round of complaints. As a teacher, a supervisor and a mother I have heard my share of whining and complaining. And like Moses, I may have felt a bit like “why me?” yet I never thought that punishment was an appropriate response.
The people long for the fish, melons, cucumbers and leeks like they had in Egypt. They sound as if they are not grateful for their freedom from slavery. They are so free from arduous labor; they don’t even need to plant their food! They only need to gather a day’s worth at a time. However, freedom is not what they are feeling. Instead they are feeling disoriented and unsure of what the future will bring. Why doesn’t God teach Moses to understand their anxiety and allay their fears? Instead, they are given enough pheasant to make them sick and many died.
Earlier in Torah, Aaron and Miriam seem to be the “heart” to Moses’ “head.” It seems uncharacteristic of them now to be gossiping about Moses’ wife and complaining about Moses’ unique role as God’s spokesman. Yet when they complain God causes Miriam to develop a skin affliction as punishment. We are left wondering, what prompted this outburst and why was Miriam so punished?
I am troubled by responding to complaining with punishment. Imagine the fear and anxiety level of people who have nothing familiar surrounding them – even the food is strange. It is the very nature of having been slaves that creates such a sense of being disempowered that only the act of complaining seems possible. Learning to be responsible for one’s life, for one’s future, for one’s actions, for one’s beliefs is the process of becoming free. That needs en-courage-ment, not punishment.
As a matter of fact, I think of complaining as the act of informing others of what to repair in the world, of guiding our way toward Tikkun Olam. (Or at least when others are complaining to me, I try to respond that way.) There are others way to make that “list” known, however, for some that is the basic level and with guidance and support can find even better ways to bring positive change.
What do you want to change? In your world or in yourself?
I like to think of the Jewish Studio as a source of encouragement for taking control of one’s Jewish actions and beliefs. The experience of new (strange) music, prayers, ideas, people are part of the process of becoming free enough to choose the Judaism and Jewish expression that is both meaningful and helps one to be an empowered person ready to make this world a place of en-courage-ment for others as well.