The Virtue of Complaint
Harry Nelson, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from Los Angeles, is an attorney specializing in healthcare law. He co-chaired the strategic planning team for LimmudLA (www.limmudla.org), which is taking place February 15-18, 2008 in Costa Mesa, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parshat Beshalach explodes with the disquietude of Israel. Elation over leaving Egypt dissipates in the face of the terror of Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Moses, the people ask, why did you lead us down this suicidal path when there were perfectly fine graves in Egypt? (Exodus 14:8-11). Although despair briefly gives way to exultation after the splitting of the Sea, as soon as the song is over, the anxiety is back: there’s nothing to drink; the water is bitter! God comes to the rescue again with the first flavored water. (Exodus 15:23-25)
The Torah is elliptical about the next grouch: “They journeyed from Elim, and the entire assembly of the Children of Israel arrived at the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month from their departure from the land of Egypt. The entire assembly of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the Wilderness.” (Exodus 16:1-2)
What now? Rashi says that “the date of this encampment is stated explicitly because on that day the biscuits that they brought out of Egypt were exhausted and they needed Manna.” According to Midrash (Shemot Rabbah), since that very first Seder night in Egypt, the children of Israel had been eating two meals a day of matza for a whole month. (Inspiration for our eight days.) Now, at this encampment, it was finally all used up. Rashi’s language is suggestive: “biscuits” – HaCharara – shares the same Hebrew root (Chet-Reish-Reish) as “freedom.” With their “bread of freedom” all gone, the children of Israel cry out with worry about whether they really want such a liberated future after all.
For all the criticism heaped upon the children of Israel for their constant complaints and their lack of faith, their edginess does have a silver lining. Would we really want ancestors who sat back complacently patiently awaiting God’s next miracle?
Would we even be here today if that were our heritage? Being a change agent means being a complainer. Across Jewish history, I submit, the power and moral force of our peoplehood derives from our outspoken discontentedness with the status quo.
The trick is how to channel it into positive action. One example in which I am proud to have been involved is LimmudLA, which kicks off its inaugural gathering next month after much hard work by a dedicated volunteer corps peppered with Wexner alumni. (There’s still time to register if you act soon.) Celebrating Jewish learning, arts, and culture, LimmudLA (like our cohorts in Atlanta, Colorado, New York, and across the Jewish world) is a platform for cross-communal Jewish renaissance. But it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without all the angst-fueled passion about the future of Jewish community.
We learn from the Hagaddah that each of us should feel as if we personally went out of Egypt. One way to do that is to take ownership of our gripes and use them as fuel for change.