For almost 10 years, Mr. Goldstein ate lunch at the same small restaurant every day and always started his meal with a cup of mushroom-barley soup. So, when Mr. Goldstein entered the restaurant and sat down, the waiter immediately placed the soup in front of him.
One day, after the waiter brought the soup, Mr. Goldstein waved him over. “Taste the soup,” he said.
“It’s mushroom-barley soup,” the waiter said. “It’s what you have every day.”
“Taste the soup,” Mr. Goldstein repeated.
“Look, if you don’t want it, I’d be happy to bring you something else.”
“Taste the soup!”
“Okay, fine,” said the waiter, “I’ll taste the soup.” He looked around and said, “Hey, where’s the spoon?”
“Aha!” said Mr. Goldstein.
That’s an example of an appropriate and effective complaint. First, Mr. Goldstein had an actual, objective problem — he couldn’t eat his soup without a spoon. Second, he complained directly to the person who had the power and means to remedy his problem. And finally, it didn’t hurt to soften a complaint with a bit of humor.
Complaining is one of the themes of this week’s parsha and, indeed, much of the book of Bemidbar. It begins almost immediately after the people leave Mount Sinai. The Torah says: “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed: A fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.”
The Torah doesn’t tell us what they complained about. Rashi says the word mitoninim, “took to complaining,” denotes a pretext — that is, there was no real problem behind their kvetching. Ramban suggests that leaving the familiar surroundings of Mount Sinai made them anxious — would they have enough food and water, would they face enemies — and so they were filled with self-pity. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch thinks the source of their complaining was boredom. And Sforno says they had no logical reason to complain — they just wanted to make trouble and distance themselves from God.
Clearly, God has no use for their complaining — as He makes quite clear with heavenly fire. But after the fire dies down, the people show they have learned absolutely nothing. The “riffraff” start talking about food, and soon all the Israelites begin complaining about the menu. “Manna? We’re sick of manna! We want meat! We want the delicacies we used to eat in Egypt!”
Moses is distraught: “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat.’” And God has had it, not just with their complaining, but with their ingratitude. “You want meat? I’ll give you meat!” The Torah records God’s response: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or 10 or 20, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”
Yes, they got their meat, and the ones who had instigated the complaining died in a plague (due, according to Ibn Ezra, to overeating). It becomes clear that there are good complaints, complaints that seek a solution to a real problem, complaints brought to those who have the power to fix the problem. And then there’s the complaining of the riffraff — unfocused, ungrateful, self-pitying.
We all know someone like this, someone who would be happy if only he or she earned more, weighed less, were more successful, or drove a nicer car. “But how can I be happy?” goes the complaint. “My boss is a moron, my kid got a bad grade in history, the doctor says I have to cut back on my favorite foods, it rained every day of my vacation, my taxes are going up, they canceled my favorite TV show.”
No human being or human relationship is perfect, so it’s easy to find reasons to complain. But complaining is poisonous. The more time you spend thinking and talking about what you don’t have, the more likely you are to undermine your career, drive friends away, or even destroy your family.
There’s another, better way. You can choose to focus on everything that isn’t wrong:
• Your boss is a moron? Okay, but you have a job that pays enough to provide necessities and some luxuries in an economy in which a lot of people are unemployed.
• Your kid got a bad grade in history? Okay, she needs to work harder or maybe work with a tutor, but she’s smart, healthy, and basically a good kid.
• The doctor says you have to give up your favorite foods? Okay, but there are lots of other good things to eat and you’re in damn good shape for someone your age.
You get the idea. And if you absolutely have to complain, why not try to balance every complaint with an acknowledgement of something good that makes you glad to be alive.