Parashat BeHaalotekha, 5764, Elisabeth Kashner

Parashat BeHaalotekha
Numbers 8:1 - 12:16
Delivered on 5 June 2004 / 16 Sivan 5764
Elisabeth Kashner

In today's Parsha, we find many events: a second Pesach, the beginning of the Israelites' Journey into the wilderness, and even a fire sent as vengeance to those who complained against G-d. But to me, a Shabbat B'yachad parent, the most interesting is an episode dealing with whining. Of course everyone has to deal with whining sometimes, not just parents. But it is a fitting topic for SBY day.

Nobody likes whining. And of course, it is easy to see why: whining is irritating. As we like to say in our house "whining doesn't get you what you want." But it does annoy those who must live with it. Whining brings out the worst in all of us.

Today's parsha finds the children of Israel in the desert, whining mightily for fish and meat and other foods they left behind in Egypt. Despite the provision of Manna they want what they want when they want it, and are willing to whine mercilessly to get it. They push Moshe to the breaking point, whereupon he bewails his fate as leader of such a bunch of ingrates. He can't imagine giving them what they demand, having no resources to produce meat and melons and fish in the desert.

Moshe beseeches G-d for help. G-d instructs Moshe to say "Be ready for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the Lord and saying 'If only we had meat to eat! You shall eat not one day, not two, net even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the Lord who is among you, by whining before Him." At this point it looks like God is caving in to whining, and giving the little ingrates what they want.

But then "[a] wind from the Lord started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp" The children of Israel eat the quail "The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. The people who had the craving were buried there."

Oh my! God has killed the children of Israel for WHINING. WHINING!! Not for idolatry, sexual impropriety, apostasy, or even baseless hatred. WHINING!! How could this be? It seems so out of proportion, and not what we would expect from the Holy one.

Let's look a little further at the situation at hand, and also consider a few other incidents of whining in the Torah:

  • In Parashat BeShelach, (Exodus 16 and 17) when the children of Israel first leave Egypt they find themselves hungry and thirsty in the desert. They pitch a fabulous guilt trip, -- my Chumash translation says they were grumbling -- "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death!" G-d responds to the need -- a real need for survival -- and sends Manna with the dew and water from the rock to satisfy their thirst and hunger. Whining worked well this time, and we can see that there was good cause.
  • In Parashat Chukat (Numbers 20) Miriam has died, and her well dried up. Now where would they get water? This time my translation has the Jews quarreling with Moshe, asking why he has brought them there to die. Unlike in BeShelach, Moshe fails to follow G-d's instructions - he strikes the rock instead of speaking to it, and though the rock does issue forth copious water, Moshe will be punished for his arrogance by being barred from entering the Promised Land. Once again, we find an instance of the Jews needing water for survival, whining for it, and having their whining taken seriously.

In contrast, in this week's parasha, the children of Israel are not starving; they are having a "gluttonous craving". They have Manna, but they want a smorgasbord. According to Plaut, this time they cry to Moshe. Their kvetching makes Moshe so miserable that he asks G-d to kill him to save him from the people's whining. When God addresses Moshe in response, the word used to describe the complaint is whining.

Well, it's not for nothing that we're tackling this subject at the SBY Shabbat. I am a mom of a 3-year-old and a nine-month- old. Consider me a graduate student in the subject of whining.

NO!! I want the yellow bowl. I don't like green!

NO!! Not Daddy! He's too fuzzy!!

Just about anything can trigger a new burst of whining, especially over food. Mama imagines smiting might be a good choice occasionally.

So what exactly is the problem with whining? Whining moves us away from appreciation for everyday miracles. We should note that today's parsha is set in time on the 20th day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year following yitziat mitzrayim. Less than 500 days after the parting of the Red Sea, the Jewish People are in pretty good shape. They have manna to eat, a leadership structure, and they have lived through a great redemption. Do they celebrate with a huge feast and songs of praise to G-d? For a moment, then back to the ungrateful and complaining normal. They whine. Miracle, what miracle? We want meat! Them's smitin' words.

Of course, I would like to think that I would be eternally ecstatic if I were freed from Egypt and given provisions daily. (Hey, no more huge checkout lines at the Berkeley Bowl with cranky children!!) But would I? I am one of the people of Israel. I probably would have been smitten for whining myself.

We are surrounded by opportunities for gratitude and joy every day. My son can cackle over a silly rhyme, or a pretend baseball game. He can also go ballistic over improperly squirted ketchup. Failure to notice the wonder all around us is the true sin. It is in our power to remember the occasions for awe, and forget to whine. Let us not be smitten for not seeing the manna in front of us.

So, back to the question of what to do about whining. If we think about it, we discover that there are many different types of whining. We respond differently to each kind.

The first kind, of course, is the kind that expresses a real need, that gives us a clue that someone is sick, or hungry, or perhaps needs information. Of course, we address the need in this case. We feed the hungry and tend the sick.

Perhaps it is the success of this type of whining that encourages other kinds of whining - the gluttonous craving kind. If whining gets you what you need, why not whine more? Whine for someone to find your baseball bat, or for a chocolate cookie. Now we've created a monster. This kind of whining, shall we say opportunistic whining, is just the type that brought down smiting in our parasha.

You know, whining is like terrorism - it's a weapon of the powerless. Children whine because they can't control their own fate. They are so little, and their desires so big. If they can't get what they want, they can pester adults until they cave in. The children of Israel were helpless in the desert in the face of the elements. They had no idea what would happen to them. God was so big and powerful; it was just too tempting to whine before him, even over trifling matters.

Let's not forget blowing-off-steam whining. We all whine when we encounter frustrating situations that we can't change. Who hasn't come away bitter from the DMV?

There's also pitiful whining, from those who could change their situation, but choose to complain instead. Makes us want to give the whiner a good shake. They could be powerful, but choose to remain weak and suffering. Dreadful.

Let's not forget self-righteous whining, when we criticize from afar. We decry the failure of others. It makes us feel big, but keeps us from taking any responsibility.

So whining runs the gamut, from expressing a real need, to being a way to get attention, to blow off steam, or to wallow in self-pity or self-aggrandizement. It shows us how powerlessness expresses itself. Certainly the Jewish people know from powerlessness. Yet, if all we ever did were whine about it, we'd be wandering in the desert still. The children of Israel needed to learn how to deal with powerlessness and whining before they were ready to enter the Promised Land.

So how DO we deal with whining, when smiting isn't right? I have some ideas -- maybe one of you will be kind enough to remind me of them the next time the volume gets too high at our dinner table.


  1. Remember that the whiner feels small. This is no excuse, but it is good to keep in mind when you're teaching better ways to communicate.
  2. Sympathize with the sentiment, if appropriate, and point out what power the whiner does have in the situation. Help find practical solutions to real problems. Deliver manna when you can.
  3. For imaginary or exaggerated problems, try to bring the whiner back to an appreciation of all the good that surrounds us. Once I "glued" peas to a cracker with peanut butter - huge grins. Distraction and humor go a long way. Tickling the belly or the funny bone helps us all see the lighter side.
  4. Failing that, point out that whining does not get you what you want. Deliver consequences, if appropriate. I was amazed yesterday - I told my son "You asked me about that once; I told you no. If I hear about it again your toy will go on time out." Right away he changed his own mood and found something fun to do.
  5. We all have to thank Vicki Kelman for this one, because it comes from a book, which she recommended and used in a series of classes on parenting. Wendy Mogul suggests that we all cultivate a culture of gratitude in our homes, and demonstrate to others our appreciation for the blessings we do have. One way to do this is to actively try to say 100 brachot a day. Another is to include positive summaries of the week's events at the Shabbat dinner table.
  6. The best defense is a good offence: Be an example by feeling powerful yourself, in a realistic way - that is, do what you can, and believe in yourself. It inspires others.
  7. Trust in God. We must have faith in G-d and our spirit to prevail. And we can remember Zaceraih's admonition in today's haftorah "not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone."