Zig Ziglar, author, salesman and motivational speaker said, “Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” The Israelites complained plenty, and gave God lots of business—or perhaps we should say that for 40 years in the Wilderness they gave God the business. It begins the moment they leave Egypt.
Imagine you are present to experience the greatest miracle of all-time. Coming from one hundred generations of slavery, you have left Egypt, venturing out into the Wilderness of Freedom, led by God’s servant, Moses. You see Pharaoh in your rear view mirror and hear your comrades whine: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11-12) Then the waters part—a wall of water on the left and a wall of water on the right—so you and everyone with you can pass through on dry ground, unencumbered, and escape Pharaoh’s charioteers. Even here people are grumbling and complaining. You hear Reuven say to Shimon: “In Egypt we had clay, and now in the sea again clay. In Egypt we had mortar and bricks, and now in the sea again mortar and bricks.” (Shemot Rabbah 24:1)
Once on the far side of the Sea, the waters close in on the Egyptian army. A watery womb, an impassible Sea, protects you. A watery tomb for the Egyptians. Moses leads you three days into the Wilderness of Shur to Marah. The water has a bitter aftertaste. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).
Some weeks later, between Elim and Sinai, in the Wilderness [of Sin], the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:2-3) In short order, manna and quail rained down, nourishing the body, but apparently not the soul, because by the time everyone encamps in Rephidim and finds there is not enough water, they blame Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our childen and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:2-3)
No sooner are they freed from Egypt than the Israelites embark on a 40-year career in complaining. The grumbling and grousing, blaming and bellyaching, whining and whinging continue and continue and continue. Steroidal kvetching. For forty years. That’s a lifetime of complaining.
What do you complain about? Come on, we all do it. You’re not alone. Think of one thing you complained about—either aloud or to yourself—in the past three days. Whom did you blame for your unhappiness? Where did you focus your attention and energy?
The Israelites focus on complaining rather than gratitude. They blame rather than reframe. They invest energy criticizing instead of creating. Some years ago, a funny piece entitled “Zen Judaism” made the rounds on the internet. Among other things, it said, “The Tao has no expectations. The Tao demands nothing of others. The Tao does not speak. The Tao does not blame. The Tao does not take sides. The Tao is not Jewish.”
But there are alternatives to complaining which come from the heart of our tradition and which make us, and those around us, far happier.
The first alternative is gratitude, a favorite topic of the Rabbis. In any situation, even when something is unsatisfying, disappointing, or downright wrong, there is always something to appreciate. Gratitude should have been a no-brainer for the Israelites: they were free, God parted the Reed Sea for them, they were in the Wilderness of Sinai rather than the tar pits of Egypt.
The second, an alternative to blaming, is reframing. The blame game is futile and toxic. It is one-sided, protecting us from seeing any other perspective or our own responsibility in a situation. Radiolab broadcast a fascinating program appropriately enough entitled “Blame” recently that calls into question the legitimacy of blaming, and points out that it often comes at the expense of compassion and forgiveness. Reframing allows us to move from our soapbox of blame and see things from another angle. Everything looks different from another viewpoint.
The third alternative to complaining is creating, changing, and repairing. When we divert out energy from kvetching to constructive change, the negative energy of anger and disappoint dissipates and is replaced by the positive energy of vision and hope. Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
So, what was the complaint you recalled a moment ago? No doubt there is a grain or more of legitimacy in your complaint. But think about this: What in that situation do you have to be grateful for? If you are blaming someone for the situation, are you able to see things from their perspective, or another angle? And are you able to muster compassion and forgiveness if they are called for? What change is needed to rectify the problem that occasioned your complaint? How will you go about forging that change and whom can you reach out to for assistance and support?
One last thing: Consider that complaining is a symptom of desire. George Bernard Shaw ironically observed, “As long as there is want, I have reason for living. Satisfaction is death.” This is not an invitation to compete for the kvetch-of-the-year award, but the desire for life is wonderful.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman