A friend of mine asked, “Why do you study the Old Testament? All that happens is the Israelites sin, they moan and complain, they sin, G-d punishes them, and the cycle begins again.”
I responded, “It’s because no matter how often we fail, G-d still loves us and He still keeps His promise to us. In a small way, it reminds me of my relationship with my mother. No matter how often I failed to live up to her expectations, she still loved me as much as when I succeeded.”
However, my friend was right. Torah seems to spend a lot of time detailing our mistakes and foibles. For instance:
- We accused G-d of tricking and leading us into a trap at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:11-12)
- We complained about the bitter water at Marah (Exodus 15:23-26)
- We complained about meat and bread (Exodus 16:1-18)
- We complained, again, for water at Rephidim (Exodus 17:1-7)
- We complained about a lack of meat and about the manna (Numbers 11:4-35)
- Miriam and Aaron complained against Moses and hid it in a complaint about his wife (Numbers 11:10-17)
- We complained because there was no water (Numbers 20:2-6)
- We grew impatient with the amount of time we were in the wilderness and complained against G-d and Moses. (Numbers 21:5-9)
- We complained at Taberah. (Num 11:1-3) I saved this one for last because there’s something interesting about this particular event. When the people spoke evil in the ears of Hashem, the text says, “The fire from Hashem burnt among them, devouring the uttermost part of the camp.” This is where one must understand that the Biblical text worries more about action than appearance. The same applies to most descriptors in the Hebrew text. While it’s easy to assume the fire burned the outskirts of town, that is not correct. Instead, the Torah is telling us it was burning those who were on the outskirts of the Judaism of the day. The rabble rousers and the rebellious factions were being excised from the ranks of Israel by the fire from Hashem.
Our complaints were often too bitter and hard on Moshe Rabbeinu. In Behaalotcha he said to G-d, “I am not able to bear all this people, myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if you deal with me in this manner, kill me, I pray, out of hand, if I have found favor in Your sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:14-16). In modern English, Moshe said, “I’m not equipped to handle this motley crüe. There’s not enough Prozak in the world. If this is to last another New York minute, G-d, KILL ME NOW!”
In spite of this biting commentary, Torah provides hope in the form of four passages: And on the day the Mishkan was built, the cloud covered the Tent of the Testimony. In the evening it had the appearance of fire until morning. The cloud always covered it by day, and had the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud moved from over the Tent, Bnei Israel journeyed; and wherever the cloud stood, there they encamped. At the commandment of Hashem they journeyed, and at the commandment of Hashem they encamped: as long as the cloud stood over the tabernacle they remained encamped. When the cloud sat over the tabernacle many days, they kept the charge of Hashem, and did not journey. Sometimes the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle, yet according to the commandment of Hashem they remained, and according to the commandment of Hashem they journeyed. Sometimes the cloud was from evening until morning; and when the cloud moved in the morning, they journeyed; or if it continued by day and by night, when the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud stayed upon the tabernacle, the children of Israel remained encamped, and did not travel; but when it was taken up, they journeyed. At the commandment of the LORD they encamped, and at the commandment of Hashem they journeyed; they kept the charge of Hashem, at the commandment of Hashem by the hand of Moses. (Numbers 9:15-23)
And again, the text says: And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony. And the children of Israel set forward by their stages out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud abode in the wilderness of Paran. And they took their first journey, according to the commandment of the LORD by the hand of Moses. (Numbers 10:11-13)
How about here: Thus did Moses, and Aaron, and all the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the Levites; according unto all that the LORD commanded Moses touching the Levites, so did the children of Israel unto them. (Numbers 8:20)
One more example: There were certain men, who were unclean by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day. And those men said unto him: “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:6-7) This is the event that facilitated Pesach Sheni, or Second Passover.
These four passages all have one thing in common: they represent a vital component in the biblical text that is ignored or just simply unnoticed because the failures detailed in Torah provide the reader an opportunity to gloat victoriously over our ancestors. However, these four texts (and there are more) tell us we were obedient. We may be kvetchniks, or kings and queens of complaining, but we are equally adept at listening and obeying Hashem. In fact, we complained when we lost out on the ability to fulfill a mitzvah – recalling the men who couldn’t remember the Pesach!
While G-d and our spiritual leaders may tire of our complaints, the sweetness of our obedience and our love for Hashem will be noted and remembered for all time — just like it is with our forefathers. Even more than my mother, God’s kindness and love will not fail, even when we forget to show love and kindness to those around us – and kindness is the most effective way to express our love for Hashem. Because G-d’s love never ceases, this does not give us permission to ignore our obligations to each other; it’s simply a reminder that Hashem is in the business of redemption when we fail. So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. It’s almost as easy as kvetching.