Monday, June 3, 2013

Shlach Lchah 5773: The Book of Kvetching!

I look at Benjamin, my son, and I am pretty clear I understand what he’s trying to say to me. Yes he doesn’t have words yet, he is very fond of “Hiya,” his first true word. He uses it kind of like Shalom in Hebrew, something of an every-word for hello, goodbye, and what’s going on.  However, he still makes it very clear what he wants at any given time. He raises his arm in the direction of what he wants, and lets out a clear grunt, when he really wants something, allow me to demonstrate.  He will happily repeat this until he gets it, and if you wait too long, it turns into the scourge of parents everywhere: a higher pitched whine.
Now there is of course a difference between a whine and a complaint, and even the term complain can be broken into two meanings.   On the one hand to issue a complaint, is an attempt to hopefully further the social order.  We complain when we hope to increase the quality of our own service, or to better the situation overall. On the other, we have the connotation that pervades in the yiddish word: kvetch.  
We as a people have a reputation, as a people that loves to kvetch for the sake of kvetching.  The other day I was visiting one of our congregants at White Plains Hospital, and he pulled me aside, sharing that he wanted to be transferred to Greenwich Hospital as soon as possible, and wanted my help in making it happen. I said to him: “What's wrong? Is it the food?"
"No, the food is fine.” He replied. “I can't kvetch."
"Is it the room?"
"No, the room is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Is it the staff?"
"No, everyone on the staff is fine. I can't kvetch."
"Then why do you want to be transferred?"
"I can't kvetch!"
Michael Wex in his commentary on that joke in his book “Born to Kvetch,” reflected: “the fundamental idea that kvetching—complaining—is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire."[7]
Now I have been saying this since we began the book of Numbers, but today I really want to get inside it: Numbers really should be called the book of kvetching.  My son has been turning the kvetch into an artform that we as a people have persisted to this day. The people kvetch constantly, and this week's parashah is no exception.   Listen to the severity of the kvetching in our Parashah:

Chapter 14
1. The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night.

א. וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא:
2. All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert.

ב. וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל משֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל הָעֵדָה לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לוּ מָתְנוּ:
3. Why does Adonai bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and weak children will be as booty. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?"

ג. וְלָמָה יְהֹוָה מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה:
4. They said to each other, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"

ד. וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה:

We earned the moniker, Stiff necked people for a reason, we are a people that like to whine and complain. This is a trope throughout our Torah,. that the grass is perpetually greener back in Egypt according to the Israelites.  Yet in reading this and considering it I began to wonder: What is the point of complaining? I also wonder: what are the benefits of complaining, or are there any as we as a people have earned such a reputation for complaining?
Even if you are complaining not just to vent, but in the hopes of changing your situation, what is the power of time, place, and circumstance? In the age of constant connectivity, there are countless stories of people complaining about poor service on Social Media, and seeing almost immediate reaction from huge corporations.  The goal is to increase the social welfare, even a little bit, and a bit selfishly.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his book, Future Tense, “Judaism is a critique of empire and the rule of the strong.” (p78) He believes, that as a people we have consistently served as the kvetching voice refusing to allow right by might, but raising our voices in protest.   Complaining has a potentially powerful role in changing our society. We complain about injustice, we complain about inequality in our world today. That form of complaining, where we are acting towards a better world and voicing what that world can be versus just kvetching about the world that is.  Now for the Israelites, it was this complaint that earned them 40 years in the desert, never able to see the promised land; yet as a people, time and again, we have stood on the sidelines of history complaining, trying to make this a better world.  
 Since we’re talking about complaints, let me not forget the humble kvetch session, a healthy expression of frustration, which everyone needs once in awhile. As researcher Dr. Barbara Held notes, it is a valuable life skill to vent constructively.  Her guidelines for any kvetch session: “Be up-front about your need to complain (rather than try to pretend you're just having a regular conversation), limit your kvetch time, and don't act as though your gripes trump everyone else's. Above all, select an appropriate listener.”
Now I know my son is a bit young to have this kind of realization about complaining.  He will continue to whine and groan at me for I would assume, years to come. Yet we as a people and as human beings need to work hard to ensure our complaining is not simply to bring others down, or to whine indiscriminately. It’s about healthily letting off some steam, and powerfully critiquing the social order to make a better world today.