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“A Trilogy of Complaining,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

July 5, 2024 | 29 Sivan 5784

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Three Torah portions in a row detail the onerous experience of having to hear and listen to complaining.

It started two weeks ago in Be’ha’alotecha with individual complainers. Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses. God defended Moses. Miriam got leprosy and Moses pleaded for her healing as a result. In the same portion, two members of the community, Meded and Eldad, remained in an ecstatic prophetic state and Joshua, Moses’ soon–to-be successor, complained to Moses to restrain them, but Moses responded positively by declaring that he wished more were like them.

In last week’s portion, Sh’lach Lecha, those designated to enter the land of Canaan to check it out as instructed by Moses, returned overwhelmed and deliriously anxious about the people there, insistent they would lose their lives and should return promptly to Egypt. As a result, God decided that it would take 40 more years to enter the land so that this generation would no longer be alive as a way to guarantee an attitude adjustment.

In this week’s portion, Korah, a member of the priestly class, railed against Moses’ leadership in an attempt to recognize that all the people are holy, not a privileged few:  “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and GOD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above GOD’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). It did not end well for Korah and two others who refused to reconcile with Moses. Instead, the earth opened up and swallowed them and their families, including their children. It is a frightening passage.

In all of these scenarios, the complainers were leaders, chosen because of their position in their tribe. Others, like Miriam and Aaron, held a certain status in their relationship to Moses as his siblings and the priesthood. Each week, it seemed to get worse. Leprosy, dying in the wilderness, and the earth consuming the complainers might be construed as a clear warning against complaint.

We would not be wrong to worry about the message the Torah may be providing. And yet, if we regard this trilogy as part of the greater whole of the development of the Jewish people and the use of the human condition to express distress, we might regard it as informative. The people complain about food but these leaders pierced the equilibrium of the community. They have a different kind of responsibility to model and to inspire. It is not easy to lead and it is also not easy to follow and to be those in between.

The story of the wilderness experience is one of going and growing toward something more, and to witness what the people will become as they move closer to the land of great promise. There are still many portions of the book of Numbers before us even with these behind us. Will complaining evolve into something different and more productive?  Let’s keep reading and studying and discover what will be revealed.

Shabbat Shalom! שבת שלום

  • We celebrate Shabbat this week with Qabbalat Shabbat at 6:00 p.m. OUTSIDE in the Garden. Register here to join on Zoom .
  • On Shabbat morning, we gather at 9:00 a.m. in the library for a short Shabbat service and Torah reading, followed by a lively discussion of this week’s Torah portion. All levels and abilities are welcomed. Register here to join on Zoom.
  • Thank Goodness It’s Shabbat gathers at 10:00 a.m. No registration necessary.
  • Gather online to say goodbye to Shabbat with a lay-led Havdalah on Zoom at 8:00 p.m. See Temple Israel’s webpage for Livesteam options.

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think. Your email goes directly to me!

Rabbi Elaine Zecher