One of the most unfathomable instances and awkward transitions in the entire Torah takes place right in the middle of this week’s parsha.
The people had just spent months seeing God’s power firsthand, experiencing grand miracles, watching what God had done just for them, for their freedom. Our parsha brings the culmination of the entire episode: As the people stood on the bank of the Red Sea with the mighty Egyptian army approaching, God miraculously split the sea for Israel and drowned the Egyptians at their heels. The Israelites rejoiced, sang and danced, and praised and thanked God for their salvation. Israel was finally free, finally their own people – and all because of Divine intervention.
That’s Part One of our Parsha.
What would we expect to happen next? If God’s commitment to the people – and vice-versa – was akin to a wedding, then next would be the honeymoon. The journey through the desert, which was meant to be quite brief, should be a process of love and relationship-building.
Instead, we find something startling – and not just once, but three consecutive times. Just a few verses after the splitting of the sea and the subsequent songs of praise, the people complain about a lack of water: “וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה – And the people murmured against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24). Then, just a few verses later, the people complain again: “מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד-יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל-סִיר הַבָּשָׂר, בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע: כִּי-הוֹצֵאתֶם אֹתָנוּ אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית אֶת-כָּל-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה בָּרָעָב – ‘If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the point of satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (16:3). And finally, in the very next chapter, “לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת-בָּנַי וְאֶת-מִקְנַי, בַּצָּמָא – ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to to kill us and our children and our flock in thirst?’” (17:3).
It feels like the ultimate chutzpah! We should yell at the people: “Stop whining! God just saved you!” How easily did they forget God’s kindness? Did they really believe that God wouldn’t come through for them after everything they had been through?
I’d like to suggest that the people were actually entirely in the right to complain. It’s perfectly understandable that they were thirsty and hungry in the desert! The first complaint, for example, wasn’t about not having gourmet creme brulee for dessert; it was about not having water after three days of thirst. I think it’s fair to say that we all might have been a bit grouchy – and, perhaps, scared – in that situation. The problem was not that they lacked faith in God. The problem was not that they complained; it was how they complained. Or, more precisely, to whom they complained.
A careful read of each of the complaints yields a fascinating pattern: Each time, the people complain to Moshe (and sometimes to Aaron, as well).
וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה – and they complained against Moshe (15:24)
וַיִּלּוֹנוּ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – and the assembly of Israel complained against Moshe and Aaron (16:2)
וַיָּרֶב הָעָם, עִם-מֹשֶׁה – and the people argued with Moshe (17:2); וַיָּלֶן הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה – and the people complained against Moshe (17:3)
Not once do they direct their complaints to the proper address – God. It’s almost as if, in the Israelites’ eyes, God was no longer in the picture. And maybe that’s precisely their struggle.
The people obviously knew and believed in God. They knew that God intervened on a grand scale, to discipline great nations like Egypt. They knew that God acts with din (judgement) and power. But they didn’t know the nature of their own relationship with God – if there was one at all. They didn’t know if God would intervene for them – a small, powerless nation – once they were out of the throes of a superpower. They didn’t know if God cared for them personally, if God would provide for them, if God would love them. After all, they ran out of water without even whisper from the Divine. And here’s the ultimate problem: In their frustration, they didn’t know how – or if – to ask. How could they turn to the Omnisicent, Omnipotent God and complain? They felt helpless.
So, when they wandered for three days and found no water, that fear was reinforced. How could they have turned to God, the all-powerful deity, and express their displeasure? Maybe they really didn’t have a relationship with God. So, they turned to their leaders. But they needed to learn that, in those moments of desperation, of feeling small and unloved, when God seemed absent – that’s precisely when they should have reached out to God. They didn’t need to be happy with God, or have blind trust in ultimate intervention. They simply needed to address their frustration to the Source. And, indeed, that’s how Moshe responds: “וְנַחְנוּ מָה, לֹא-עָלֵינוּ תְלֻנֹּתֵיכֶם כִּי עַל-יְהוָה – What are we? Your complaints aren’t against us, but against Hashem!” (16:8). It almost sounds petty, as if Moshe is shirking responsibility. But Moshe wasn’t being petty at all; he recognized and heard the deeper theological and psychological struggle of the people underlying their complaints, and responded directly to it. Yes, you should be turning to God! You’re allowed to be frustrated. But direct that frustration to the Source.
The implications of this intricate narrative are poignant. Our relationship with God isn’t just transactional or opportunistic; it’s precisely that – a relationship. And relationships come with ups and downs. We’re never expected to pretend that our spiritual lives are rosy and effortless, that our relationship with God is a magical romance. But we are expected to recognize that we’re in a relationship – and as difficult as it can be, turning to God in frustration and anger acknowledges that very relationship.Pa