Kvetching is an art. How to combine the right amounts of nagging, whining, flattery, with a good cause that needs attention? As we’ll see, the recent film “Inside Out” provides us with a great illustration: It’s the difference between Sadness just coloring all the golden balls “blue” (she really really wants to!!), and Joy running the show, where on occasion, purposefully, she even decides to invite Sadness to take over, as needed. Ok, if this does not make sense, just watch the movie!
By this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we might be deaf to the “we need water”, “we need bread”, “oh, if only we went back to the yummy cucumbers and eggplants of Egypt”, “I do not like stale bread”!! We also might be confused: sometimes the people ask for water, and get it. They ask for food, and get manna, but this time, the complaints are met with snakes! Like any parent who hadn’t had enough sleep and his child is tagging at her dress again? has G-d just had it and is lashing out, grabbing the first creature He could get His hands on and tossing it at the people?
As a parent, I generally believed that if my kids are complaining, there must be a reason for it. I remember one time when nothing seemed obvious: the baby was just changed, fed, burped, all should have been well, but the whimpering continued. The general advice in such cases is often, oh, they are “spoiled”; they just want to be held; let them cry it out, but I did not – and still do not – believe that this is a right and beneficial tactic. On the contrary: I always wanted my kids to know that someone is going to be there for them; that attention is not a luxury you have to vie or fight for; that being held is not a “bonus” for obscurely being “good”, but a natural part of life; and mostly, that they matter and their voice – valued. So at this time too, I double checked again everything. Do you want to eat, I asked the speechless child? Do you want to be cuddle? Your diaper is not smelly, what is it?
But then, just in case, I did recheck the diaper, which – due to all sorts of ecological convictions, was a cloth diaper and to my horror, I discovered, that the safety-pin was not fully closed, and therefore, in certain positions, slightly scraped the baby’s skin. It wasn’t bad and two kisses and a tickle on the tummy took care of it then and there, but I can’t imagine how I would have felt had I let the baby “cry it out”, and later found out what was going on. It was a very reassuring lesson for the young mom I was.
Sadly, I’m sure that there are other times I’ve missed things, was overwhelmed, overloaded, over-everything. Luckily, G-d has no such issues, and can meet our complaints head-on, every time. Indeed, it turns out that when there is a plausible cause for the people’s complaints, they are answered, even if the presentation is whiny and not polite. Sure, we should strive to speak nicely, but when there is something to it, the presentation can be overlooked, and the content should be attended to. Thus, when there is no water, and they ask for water – water is provided; when they are hungry – they are given food, but here the complaint is different: “נפשנו קצה בלחם הקלוקל” – “we’re sick and tired of the stale bread”, meaning, there was bread!! But, just not good enough. Oh, if only we had donuts!!
G-d doesn’t give them donuts or better bread, and instead, also sends snakes. Why snakes? The nachash (serpent, snake) shares its Hebrew root with nachesh, to guess. Nechoshet, copper, is likewise, soft and malleable. On the upside, Nachshon, was the prince of the tribe of Yehuda who, according to the midrash, walked into the water at the Sea of Reeds so the sea would split. He was a leader who could change his predictable actions, and thus change the foreseeable future. Being flexible is good, at times. In the Book of Genesis, the nachash symbolized death, even though the first humans do not physically die, but they do lose a key component in their spiritual connection with G-d: There and here, the nachash’s “guessing”, slithery nature stands for separation, insecurity, uncertainty and lack of faith. Further, the snake often doesn’t bite because it is hungry, also symbolic of the complaint which goes nowhere, just bites for nothing.
Although G-d is not a “vending machine”, S/He is very generous with us when we need something, and – I believe – we are welcome to ask, and do so in any way we can verbalize our wishes: polite, well articulated words might be nice, but crying and whining are fine too, as long as we have a valid reason. However, if we are taking the gifts we already get for granted, and are dwelling on this and that being just “not good enough”, things might get progressively worse. Not only won’t the “this and that” be improved, but “snakes” will be added to our life too.
This is a daily exercise, which takes no gym fees, no running shoes, no special schedule, just a mental switch: to look around and notice the wow in G-d’s gifts.