Daniel arrives home from work at 5pm and as soon as he steps through his front door, his wife Judith starts having a go at him. “Why don’t you ever wipe your feet before walking into the house? ….. I thought you said you were coming home at lunch time today …… Where’s the shopping I asked you to get on the way home? ….. You left the toilet seat up again this morning. …. Don’t you ever think of buying me Shabbat flowers, like you used to do? ….”
This incessant criticism, nagging and complaining goes on for nearly 2 hours – nothing Daniel says or does seems to be right by her. By 7pm, Daniel has had enough. But he knows better than to have a go at Judith so he tries a more tactical approach.
“Darling,” he says, “Please – let’s start again. I’ll go back outside and shut the door. Then I’ll open the door and come in. We can then pretend I’ve just come home. What do you think?”
“OK,” she replies.
So Daniel puts on his coat, goes outside, shuts the door, waits a minute, opens the door, and steps in with a smile on his face. He immediately announces, in a musical tone, “Oh darling, I’m home.”
“And just where have you been?” says Judith, “It’s past seven o’clock!”
In this week’s parsha –Beshalach- Moses has to deal with complaints. First the Jews complain about having to wander in the desert and then they want to know how they will get across the Red Sea. This is followed by complaints about having not enough food, (“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death”) and not enough water (“They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; “). It is as if the miracles that God continues to perform for them do not even register as being miraculous.
So why do the Jews (or Judith!) complain? What causes people to focus on the negative? According to psychologist Robin Kowalski, people complain when they are in discomfort. She writes that:
“A state of self-focus forms the basis of every complaint episode. When in a state of self-focused attention, people compare the current state of events with their standards for those events…. when the current state of affairs matches our standards, we feel good. When reality falls short of our standards, we feel the need to complain or whine.” (From Psychology Today, Shawn T. Smith, Psy.D, Jan.26, 2010).
In other words, people complain when things aren’t up to their standards. And one can say that the difficulties of the desert would cause a lot of people to complain, even some of us. So what was the objective of Moses in taking the children of Israel on a skewed path rather than straight to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, whereby he could have perhaps avoided some of the issues?
Even though the Jews had reason to complain, there was also a purpose to God’s plan in bringing them to these difficult places and provoking them into complaining. They were unprepared for a life of responsibility and choice. Before God could hand over the responsibilities of the Torah, he had to force the Jews to confront their “state” of mind and their standards. Complaining, according to Kowalski, can also create insight into a problem. When Moses brought them to the places with bitter water and poor food choices, he was actually forcing them to confront and develop a new set of standards. Moses wanted the Jews to realize that they could do two things: delay gratification and accept difficult conditions on the road to freedom, and also take control of their destiny, by searching for solutions rather than whining about problems. And in a sense, the complaints, although they are negative, can also be a positive step on the road to maturity, in allowing the Jews to confront the external problems and personal weaknesses they need to overcome.
Complaining can be positive when it leads us to re-evaluate our situations and when it results in real change. Kvetching just to blow off steam may be unhelpful, but complaining effectively and getting results can be incredibly empowering.