Comprehending the Complaints

That which is earned through hard work is valued.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

In parshat Beha'alotcha we have the beginning of the downward spiral of sins that the generation of the desert committed, culminating in the next parsha with the sin of the spies and the decree to spend forty years in the desert, until this generation is no more and a new generation, born in freedom, could enter Eretz Yisroel. It is
What originally transpired were failures in thought processes, rather than in actions.
difficult for us to understand how the people who witnessed the revelation at Sinai, after all the wonders and miracles HaShem did for them to redeem them from Egypt, could possibly resort to what appears to be such superficial complaints against HaKodosh boruch Hu. Yet, in order for us to learn from these incidents, it is incumbent upon us to explore both the circumstances and the psychological factors that could have impacted these actions.

The first thing we must admit is that, in fact, these complaints may indeed have been petty. Had you or I complained about moving out of our comfort zone, or about the menu, HaShem would likely look the other way, as a parent would give her child "the look", but not punish him. But these were errors in judgment of great people, whose every word and every action is scrutinized. In their holy state of leaving the marriage canopy at Sinai, every blemish seems magnified, as a stain on their pure white wedding gown.

Next, we must realize that what originally transpired were failures in thought processes, rather than in actions or even in words. The people started out "as complainers to the ears of God." No one else heard them, yet HaShem detected a transgression in their demeanor. What was this first transgression? Rashi explains that they were too willing to move away from Sinai, from that place where they had bonded with their Maker more closely than any human being could since that time.

Bnei Yisroel did not move until the cloud of glory lifted and signified it was time to move on. Furthermore, the Shechinah and the Mishkan went with them. Nevertheless, where was the hesitation at leaving the place that symbolized the immutable covenant of love between God and His people? Where was the lingering backward look and longing to retain the joy and warmth of that time?

The elders had already been negligent in according honor to HaShem. At Mt. Sinai itself, their egos overtook their nullification of self to HaShem. Their eyes wandered from the glory of God, and they ate and drank with too little self-restraint. But HaShem did not want to disturb the sanctity of matan Torah, and waited until the sin of the "complainers" before rendering punishment. Then, retribution for the sin of the nation began with a fire among the elders. They should have been the role models for the rest of the nation. How did their attitude affect their brethren? Did this impact the trepidation of Bnei Yisroel at not being worthy of receiving the manna at all, not only at their doorstep? Did it then translate into the nostalgia for the fish in Egypt that they received with "no strings attached", no necessity to serve God, although they were forced to serve harsher, human masters?

Herein, perhaps, lies the key to both the downfall of Bnei Yisroel and to HaShem's displeasure. The measure of a transgression is not so much in how one does not physically fulfill an obligation, but rather in how far this transgression distances him from his spiritual Source. Their transgressions signified a lack of faith, however minuscule, in the Ribono shel olam, a crack in the very foundation of our belief and religion. That generation saw miracles, but did nothing on their own to warrant them. HaShem heard their cries and remembered His covenant with our forefathers, and took action. That generation witnessed God's Presence on Mt. Sinai, heard His voice proclaiming the first two of the Ten Commandments.

The Torah was a gift, which we were, boruch HaShem, wise enough to accept. We, however, did not work to earn it. That which is earned through hard work is valued; that which comes too easily is trivialized. Yes, Bnei Yisroel understood that they were given incalculable gifts, but not having struggled to attain them kept them from being tenacious in guarding them.

In fact, this truism is the basis for another interpretation of the motivation of these elders. The verse says, "They desired a desire." To paraphrase that, we can say that they wanted to be tested. They wanted to face a challenge in their faith so that they would value it more highly. But HaShem had not wanted to test them.

We ask HaShem daily not to test us, certainly not in unusual ways. When we request that which is not in HaShem's plan, we are generally doomed to failure, as King David was when he asked to be tested and then failed with Bathsheva. So, too, did the generation of the desert fall short in this test of faith. A minor transgression - they seemed as complainers. Their demeanor, their facial expression complained to the sensitive ears of HaKodosh boruch Hu, without a word being spoken. How can one appear before a king and wear a sad face? How can one
If we value our relationship with the Ribono shel olam, then let us linger in His presence and show our appreciation.
not smile at the great honor of being in a king's presence? How much more so must we be joyous and let our face show it in the presence of the King of kings!

And now, how can we internalize some of these thoughts? First, if we value our relationship with the Ribono shel olam, then let us linger in His presence and show our appreciation. Let us not "escape" from Shabbat, but let us add a few extra minutes to retain that "extra neshamah", that piece of the spirit of HaShem. Show Him how much we value His word by kissing the sefer before we put it back in the bookcase.

Most importantly, let us train ourselves to be mindful of His Presence every moment. Take the time to practice this mindfulness, to ask ourselves with every action, "Who is moving my hand? Is it me, or is it really my Creator?"

When the knowledge that HaShem is constantly with us becomes internalized, we can more easily overcome the egocentricity that underlies all sins. Then we can face life with all its inherent challenges not with the question and the frown of, "Why me," but with a smile on our faces, confident that HaShem will help us through our difficulties.