Complaining Has Consequences
We are living in times in which “the human race” enjoys certain privileges that come with humanistic thinking. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons. The positive side is that we as humans can all enjoy the same values and rights such as access to food, health, housing, clothing, to decent treatment, equal education, and daily pleasures. However, on the flip side, when there is an imbalance due to receiving these rights without assuming responsibility, chaos ensues. I easily observe this in the people who we employ here in El Salvador; they want to earn large salaries without lifting a finger, thinking that they are doing me a favor by hiring them, or that it is their charisma, their pretty face, their clothes and not their results which will generate their compensation. This is how we live in an unbalanced world, where a good job cannot be demanded, where people won’t abide by their schedules, where they have no respect for the rules and the hierarchies. The problem is exacerbated in those under 30 years of age, who by the way, have terrible communication habits, since they were raised in this era of “entitlement”.
What’s it all about? This is not a class in anthropology, humanism, or sociology; rather it is a mirror of this Torah portion, Beshalach. A people Israel had just been born at the Sea of Reeds and according to the Torah in chapter 14:31, they had just begun to believe in the Eternal and in his messenger, Moshe since they had just witnessed His great power over the Egyptians, and they came to the conclusion that what had happened to them in their exodus from Egypt is that “this God – the Bore Olam- ” was above all the Egyptian gods, above the natural elements – life, death, Pharaoh as well as the most powerful army on earth at that time.
But I don’t know if they were Israelites or Salvadoreans; the point is that their level of belief was very basic; they understood that “separate gods with specific roles” existed, and despite the fact that the Bore Olam was still above any other god, the layer of idolatry that blinded them did not allow them to trust that He is Unique and Absolute, to the extent that the Israelites doubted and kept “testing” the Almighty to see if He was capable of producing new miracles every day. Today, many people suffer from this disease; they like to test the Eternal as if He were an electronic device or they simply test Him looking for fault, that is, well, the Eternal cured me of such and such a disease, but now let’s see if He can give me employment, or if He can give me a car, if He can move someone’s heart to do me a favor, etc. and in the end, we have lost the understanding that God is the Eternal and does not depend on anything or anyone… to be God.
This is what made Israel say: He already saved me from the plagues, from the angel of death, from the plague of darkness, from the cold, from slavery, from Pharaoh and his army, from my anguish… now let’s see if God can save me from thirst and hunger. They were really testing Him, even though they had seen all his wonders. Sometimes, we tend to think that if we were in Egypt, we would not have behaved like that, but let me tell you, we would have acted exactly the same, because humans have a dualistic nature – we can simultaneously believe and doubt, fear and be sure, thank and complain. Isn’t it amazing that these same people complained after they had just sung a song of victory and their women had just danced for joy with tambourines in hand as we read in chapters 15 and 16?
In this modern society, complaining stems from a “created need”. What are our true needs…to eat, breathe, sleep, hydrate, live together, dress, etc. But what are these created needs? They are distorted, whims where I can’t just eat anything, it must be “something according to my level and my tastes”; I can’t wear anything, it must be X or Y brand to satisfy my ego; we could go through thousands of examples, but Shemot 12:36 shows us that the people had no true needs, ” and Adonai had made the Egyptians so favorably disposed toward the people that they had let them have whatever they requested. Thus, they plundered the Egyptians”.
This implies that they had been well compensated with cattle and birds (they had meat), they had food (grains and fruit) but their first complaint was in 16:3 “We wish Adonai had used his own hand to kill us off in Egypt! There we used to sit around the pots with the meat boiling, and we had as much food as we wanted. But you have taken us out into this desert to let this whole assembly starve to death!” If we read carefully, their complaints and their desires were absurd; we can go as far as to call them manipulation. Let me tell you something, God cannot be manipulated; He knows and sees everything. Do you think that by telling God you had better kill me, He would grant them their whims? Manipulation does not allow us to think, because we are so focused on our selfish desire, that we lose our sanity and clear thinking and are unable to make correct decisions.
God is good, and as Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Do I take any pleasure at all in having the wicked person die?” asks Adonai Elohim. “Wouldn’t I prefer that he turn from his ways and live? I, the LORD, affirm it.” God’s desire for His people is clear because He miraculously sent them manna or Man מָ֣ן in Hebrew so that they reconsider and do teshuva. However, that never happened, because we read that they collected the bread from Heaven, some thinking that they were smarter than God by collecting more and others less than they needed, but we never see that after the “Man” the people gave thanks to those they could see (like Moshe and Aaron) or to the Eternal. Everyone was silent, which suggests that silence is often synonymous with ingratitude.
They then decided to take an “illusory vacation” in Refidim רְפִידִם (17:1) whose name depicts a place of support or rest, i.e., they arrived at a place of tranquility. Now would come a time of true need when they were thirsty. However, their way of asking was demanding; how many of us today demand and do not ask? Demand comes from arrogance and pride. We read in chap 17:2 “the people quarreled with Moshe, demanding, “Give us water to drink!” and when it is accompanied by manipulation, the real issue becomes distorted: as we read 17:3 “For what did you bring us up from Egypt? To kill us, our children and our livestock with thirst?” First, were the children and cattle, theirs? Had they not been given all these gifts from the Eternal? Had they not consecrated their children to the Eternal? So, here we have a dangerous formula: “Ingratitude plus manipulation plus Ego equals Complaint” and this complaint brought bitterness to the people. Whoever complains, in general, even what they eat, and drink tastes bad. Rabbi Avi Salem says: “What happened to the people and why would the water need to be sweetened by a branch, if it was bitter? The teaching that God was giving Moshe and the people was that the problem was not that the water tasted bitter, but that it was the people who were “bitter” and so, that’s how it tasted. in this case, God sweetened the water with a bitter branch to show the people of Israel that they needed to change their bitter attitude and the water would taste sweet again”.
Notice that at the time of the complaint, Esau appeared in the form of Amalek. Why? Because the complaint was born from Esau and when we complain it is as if we allow Esau to think that he can take the birthright from us. In Bereshit 25:29-34 it says, “One day when Yaakov had cooked some stew, Esau came in from the open country, exhausted. And said to Yaakov, ‘Please! Let me gulp down some of that red stuff — that red stuff! I’m exhausted!” (This is why he was called Edom [red].). Yaakov answered, ‘First sell me your rights as the firstborn.’, ‘Look, I’m about to die!’ said ‘Esau. ‘What use to me are my rights as the firstborn?’ Yaakov said, ‘First, swear to me!’ So, he swore to him, thus selling his birthright to Yaakov. Then Yaakov gave him bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, got up and went on his way. Thus, Esau showed how little he valued his birthright.” We clearly see the same elements from Shemot in these verses: weariness – complaint – seeking to satisfy their created need by demanding – ingratitude (contempt) – pride – bitterness – arrogance– absurdity (both had compared their state to death).
This complaint leads them to lose their song, their voice before the Eternal, which was why Amalek appeared; in Devarim 25:17-18 God says, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you by the road, attacked those in the rear, those who were exhausted and straggling behind when you were tired and weary. He did not fear God.” By losing their faith, emunah, Israel sounded, not like a descendant of Yaakov, but of Esau with Amalek appearing to collect his claim as the “rightful heir”. Israel began to fight by his strength, but Moshe could discern that it was something spiritual; Amalek was born from the lack of emunah, the lack of fear of Heaven, lack of gratitude, and out of fatigue.
Today, we must live with gratitude; not tire ourselves to the point of exhaustion which will force us to make wrong decisions; we must live without bitterness, but above all, we must avoid complaining. If something does not happen to us, we must grow and mature by saying: “God wanted this this way, it is for my good“. My desire on this Shabbat is that we can rest and be thankful for how good our God is to us, that from our conscience arises a song and not a complaint.