Complainers change their complaints, but they never reduce the amount of time complaining. – Mason Cooley
There once was a man who joined a monastery where the monks were permitted to speak only two words per year, and those only at a private, year-end audience with the abbot.
Of course, the monks were expected to use their two words to further some spiritual purpose or espouse some eternal truth. But at the end of his first year, all the man offered was, “Bed hard.”
At the end of the second year, he said “Food bad.”
At the end of the third year, “No heat.”
At the end of the fourth year: “I quit.” “I can’t say I’m surprised,” replied the abbot. “You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”
Zig Ziglar once opined that, “when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” If that’s true, the Jewish people certainly gave G-d ample business.
En route to the Land of Israel, the Jewish people complained incessantly. They complained that there wasn’t fresh water (Shemos 15:23-24; Erchin 15a), that the food in Egypt was better and more varied than in the desert (Shemos 16:3; Bamidbar 11:4-6), and that they didn’t have meat (Shemos 16:8-12). They even complained about the mann (Rashi, Bamidbar 11:7). Now, mann was the ultimate food. It tasted however the person wanted it to taste (Yoma 75a). It produced no bodily waste. It cost nothing. No effort was required to prepare it. It probably was even calorie-free. And still the people complained about it.
But the complaining actually began before all that. One could see the trend developing even during the splitting of the Yam Suf, when the Jewish people “rebelled at the sea at Yam Suf” by complaining about mud on their shoes (Tehillim 106:7 and Medrash ad loc.). Here was perhaps the greatest miracle in all history, and what’s their reaction? “Our shoes are getting muddy.”
It is therefore no surprise that as the Jewish people begin their trek to the Land of Israel, they “were like complainers in G-d’s ears” (Bamidbar 11:1). We are not told what the complainers complained about because they weren’t complaining about anything concrete—they simply wanted to distance themselves from G-d, and they used trumped-up complaints to justify their behavior (Rashi, Bamidbar 11:1; see Sifri, Bamidbar 84). The complaints were pure pretext. That’s why they were only “like complainers”—because they really had no legitimate complaints (S’forno, Bamidbar 11:1).
We typically assume that the subject of a complaint is the source of dissatisfaction. But it is often just the opposite: the dissatisfaction comes from a deeper place, an inner void perhaps, and the complaint is just an outlet (Ma’or v’Shemesh, Bamidbar 11:1). Chronic complainers are actually unhappy with themselves, and they project that dissatisfaction in the form of unending and sometimes unreasonable complaints.
Thus, when the people complained that they could not drink the water “because they were bitter” (Shemos 15:23), the Kotzker Rebbe explains that the water wasn’t bitter—the people were bitter. The people complained because they had become complainers. And complainers fail to appreciate that their complaints are often baseless.
There once was a poor man who lived with his wife and six children in a small one-room house, with so little space they could hardly breathe. When the man could stand it no more, he complained to his Rebbe about how miserable things were at home. The poor man agreed to follow the Rebbe’s directives without question.
“Do you own any animals?” asked the Rebbe.
“Yes,” the man responded. “I have a cow, a goat, and some chickens.”
The Rebbe seemed pleased. “When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you.”
The poor man was confused but he had agreed to do as the Rebbe directed. So he went home and gathered all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house.
The next day the poor man returned to the Rebbe. “What have you done to me? Now it’s worse than before. There are animals all over the house!”
The Rebbe listened. “Now go home and take the chickens back outside.”
The poor man did as the Rebbe said but returned the next day. “The chickens are gone, Rebbe, but the goat is wreaking havoc on everything in sight!”
“Good,” said the Rebbe. “Now go home and take the goat outside.”
So the poor man went home and took the goat outside.
He was soon back before the Rebbe. “What a nightmare! With the cow, it’s like living in a barn!”
“You’re right,” replied the Rebbe. “Go home and take the cow out of your house.”
The next day he returned with a huge grin. “Rebbe! The animals are all out of the house. It’s so quiet and we have room to spare!”
There are people who complain about everything. You know who they are. They’re at home. They’re at work. They’re your neighbors. They’re in shul. But wherever they are—whatever the circumstances—they have an insatiable need to complain. “This is no good, and that’s no good. You should be doing this, and he should be doing that. This should be done that way, and that should be done this way.” It never ends.
Indeed, when Miriam fell ill, Moshe had to limit his prayer to five words—“Please, G-d, please heal her” (Bamidbar 12:13)—because some would claim that anything longer would be insensitive to Miriam, while others would complain that he would never pray that long for anyone but his own sister (Rashi ad loc.; Sifri, Bamidbar 105; cf. Berachos 34a). The complaints might have been slightly nuanced. But everyone would have complained.
Baseless complaints against our leaders, although forbidden categorically, are nothing new (Sanhedrin 110a; Rambam, Talmud Torah 5:1). Even when the Jews were saved from the clutches of Haman due to the efforts of Mordechai, not everyone supported Mordechai since he had ingratiated himself to the monarchy and interrupted his Torah learning (Esther 10:3 and Rashi ad loc.). As Abraham Lincoln famously opined, “You can please some of the people all the time. You can please all the people some of the time. But you can’t please all the people all the time.”
That’s not to say there is no legitimate place for complaints. But there’s a difference between good complaining and bad complaining. When there is nothing of substance behind the complaint—when the complaint is habitual or trumped up—the complaint is “bad” (Bamidbar 11:1).
But other complaints are rooted in a desire to help people, to come closer to G-d, or to right a wrong. That is good complaining. Without complaining, one learns to accept the status quo—even when the status quo is unacceptable. Indeed, the daughters of Tz’lofchad complained about their father’s name being diminished simply because he did not have a son (Bamidbar 27:4). And those who were ritually impure and unable to participate in the Pesach offering complained and inspired the concept of a Pesach Sheni (Bamidbar 9:7). So complaining certainly can be a force for progress.
But those who, by nature, are not complainers, find a way not to complain—even when there is ample reason to.
A chassid suffering from many misfortunes once complained to his Rebbe. The Rebbe told him, “I cannot tell you how to cope with your suffering,” the Rebbe advised, “but Reb Zisha can. Go see Reb Zisha.”
When the chassid arrived at Reb Zisha’s house, he was shocked to find such a depressing and dilapidated shack: there were leaks all over, and there was a dirt floor, no heat, and no furniture. The scene only worsened as Reb Zisha came to the door. He was severely stricken with boils all over his skin, and he was wearing rags. The chassid grew even more despondent over the pitiful scene.
The chassid explained that he was referred by his Rebbe to ask how Reb Zisha how to endure suffering without complaints.
Reb Zushia was bewildered. “Me? Explain suffering? How would I know? I have nothing to complain about.”
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Complaining is the one of the Jewish people’s foremost character defects (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 17). It’s become a part of our collective DNA. Like the joke about three Jewish mothers eating lunch at a restaurant in New York, when the waiter approached them in the middle of their meal and asked, “Is anything alright?”
Nothing in life is perfect, but that’s no justification to become a complainer (Tana d’Bei Eliyahu Zuta 1). Our mission is to deal with problems as best we can, and not to harp on life’s inevitable imperfections.