D’var Torah – Parshat Chukat

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AVT headshot gmail versionBy Rabbi Abigail Treu

Overheard at camp yesterday, out of the mouth of an experienced rosh edah: “This is the week where a lot of kids start not feeling well.  There’s nothing really wrong, it’s just the week when everyone’s energy dips. The excitement of the first few weeks of camp is over, and the end seems really far away.  But it will pick back up with Visiting Day – everyone will get a boost then…”

How fitting, I thought, for the week of Parashat Chukat.  The middle of a long trek through the desert.  The older generation is dying off, as we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  Grief abounds, as does exhaustion.  There are several battles yet to wage, draining travel negotiations that go nowhere, and a sense of weariness as none of it is really new anymore.  We also get yet another complaint by the people:  “The people quarreled against Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished…why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 3-5)

Of course, this time the people are a bit justified, as Hizkuni and others note.  They really don’t have enough water.  Which makes me wonder: does that make a difference? Are we allowed to complain when it’s justified?

A few years ago, Will Bowen got a lot of press for his “Complaint-Free World” campaign.  His website (http://www.willbowen.com) claims to have distributed more than 11 million purple bracelets worn by people committing to stop complaining.  I think of my grandfather, Harold Gross, z”l, who endured the Great Depression as a child, and as a teenager in the US Army liberated the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp, an experience so awful he could never bring himself to speak about it. Who lost one wife to illness in their youth, and another to dementia in her old age.  Never a word of complaint.  Never.

I’m not sure our generation, or that of our children and grandchildren here in Camp, are as disciplined.  And so I use this space to invite us to notice our complaining.  When is it justified, and when is it simply spoiled, ungrateful? When our complaints are justified, might we simply train ourselves to stop speaking before we utter ungrateful words? Might we turn the impulse to complain into a nudge toward some form of tikkun olam, of becoming part of the solution, rather than simply whining our way through our days as b’nai yisrael seems to be doing at this stage of their 40-year journey?

There are weeks when our energy dips, when we feel tired of the daily grind and like there is nothing to be excited about.  But one thing we can learn from bnai yisrael’s habit of complaint is that it doesn’t really help them a whole lot.  God has a plan for them, their needs will be met, and they have a particular part to play in the unfolding of Jewish history.  They might not all be the ones to reach the Promised Land, or to have fresh bottles of water available at their bedside each night.  But they have a whole lot to be grateful for, and we who read their complaints can learn from their bad habits as we train ourselves toward curiosity, gratitude, patience, and being a part of the unfolding mystery of life – or maybe simply a summer at camp.