Bitching is easy. Holy bitching is another matter.
Easy bitching is what our Torah ancestors did after 39 years in the desert – and who could blame them? Having buried beloved leaders Miriam and Aaron, the people called Israel were miserable: 39 years on the move, in the wilderness, eating manna. It is human nature to notice frustrations and start complaining.
Letting off steam and expressing discontent can be healthy and cleansing. Expressing discontent that commits us and others to concrete actions for betterment is how all social reform movements begin. But complaining without end, without gratitude and without action can undermine community and disrupt society – and there’s nothing holy about that.
Our Torah ancestors complained without end and without gratitude. Simply put, they bitched – and not for the first time. The bitching that Numbers chapter 21 describes isn’t the first time that the people bemoan their fate, blaming God and Moses.
But this time, God conjured a way to tame the people’s fury: snakes. The snakes came biting and the people ran to Moses for relief. God told Moses to create a serpent figure and fix it to a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake could run to view the snake on a stick and they wouldn’t die. (If the image sounds familiar, look at the emblem for the American Medical Association.)
The scene sounds crazy, but the symbolism is poignant. The consequence of disruptive behavior was a snake bite, and the remedy was to look at a copper snake. The snake is the animal that deceived Eve and Adam in Eden. The snake’s sharp tongue prompted dissatisfaction, disobedience and expulsion. So too here: endless ungrateful bitching was poised to deny our ancestors the promised land.
The snake story’s resilience lesson is a bit of spiritual homeopathy: the “cure” lay within the “illness” itself. Bitching was poisonous, and only seeing the poison for what it was could lead to healing.
The next time you feel the impulse to complain, ask if what’s arising is a healthy steam-letting, a constructive criticism, a call to action or just bitching. All are human, but not all are holy – and not all are pathways to resilience.
R’ Evan J. Krame & R’ David Evan Markus