Deuteronomy 1 – 3:22
The Ill Effects of Grumbling and Complaining in the Family
The name of the book is Devarim, meaning “words” or “sayings.” Devarim (Deuteronomy) can be considered the last will and testament of Moses. Its purpose is to explain and highlight the experiences and revelations that took place in the desert. This book opens up with the words:
“These are the words
that Moses spoke
to all Israel.”
| Eleh hadevarim
| asher diber Moshe
This tells us a few things. First, that this was a spoken message; we learn that this book contains an oration by Moses that takes place over the last five weeks of his life. Secondly, the choice of both the words “devarim/words” and “diber/spoke,” instead of the more common “amar/he said,” shows a certain urgency and admonishment in his voice. He didn’t just communicate a message, he had words with them.
In order to understand this book we must recognize that this book is an explanation of the Torah, thus it is referred to in the Talmud as “Mishneh Torah;” meaning “the Review (Repetition) of Torah” and “the Explanation of the Torah.” I believe the support of this view lays in verse 5:
“By the side of the Jordan river
in the land of Moab
Moses began to explain the Torah,
and this is what he said…”
| Be’ever haYarden
| be’eretz Mo’av
| ho’il Moshe be’er et-haTorah
| hazot lemor
Moses has gone as far as he can with the people, they are about to enter into The Promised Land. This oration is meant to remind them of what they went through in the process of becoming a people, and to clarify what they needed to know in order to exist as a functioning society.
As we get into this parsha I want us to take a good look at some details that can easily be overlooked. Often times when something is being explained a second time we tend to gloss over it, kind of like we do genealogies. However, even these seemingly pointless repetitions are rich with truth.
Right off we start hearing a list of places discussed; the Aravah, the Sea of Reeds, Paran, Tophel, Laban, Hazerot and Di-Zihav. We should notice how matter-of -fact Moses is in mentioning these places. In fact most of the situations and places mentioned are discussed just as bluntly. But why? The account of Moses comes so off the cuff because he was there, it comes out with a tone of “I was there with you, we went through this together; I don’t need to remind you.”
Furthermore, it appears to me that Moses merely mentions these places through nicknames because his intent is to use this opportunity to encourage the people, not to chastise them. I know it sounds like I’m going out on a limb here, but we have to recognize what being “b’midbar/in the wilderness” represents. The Targum Onkelos (Aramaic translation) and the Sifri understand the wilderness as the Wilderness of Sin, where the people rebelled and griped against Hashem. However, we are not sure exactly where some of these places are and what they are in reference to. In fact Rashi quotes Rabbi Yochanan saying, “We have reviewed the entire Bible, but we have found no place named Tofel or Lavan!” Though it appears that many of these places are in reference to locations where the people sinned against Hashem. Rashi says that Tofel and Lavan refer to the complains of the people against the manna, that Hazerot refers to the place of Korach’s rebellion and Di-Zahav was the place the Golden Calf was forged (also supported by Targum; Sifri; Berakhoth 32a).
It is a beautiful idea to me that Moses shows such restraint here, in that he refuses to elaborate on situations that were known to all the people, in order to keep from embarrassing them! To me it also means that we should be reading this book of Devarim much more tenderly. So often have I heard the words of this book thrown around by people of all walks of life in such a harsh and rebuking manner. We should be reading this book more lovingly and patiently. In fact the tone of Moses shows even more tenderness and gentle wisdom in his recounting of certain tragic events that took place in the desert.
Complaining is Equal to Slander
One of the events that Moses feels that he must touch upon is the incident of the people refusing to ascend to The Land. In verse 26 we read:
“And you did not wish to ascend,
and you rebelled against the word of
Hashem, your G-d
You slandered in your tents
and said, “Because of Hashem’s hatred for us
did he take us out of the land of Egypt.”
| Velo avitem la’alot
| vatamru et-pi
| Hashem El’oheichem
| Vateragnu ve’aholeichem
| vatomeru besin’at Hashem otanu
| hotzi’anu me’erets Mitzrayim
Here, as Moses is describing this situation from his perspective he used the word “slander” in order to describe the kind of groaning the Children of Israel engaged in. The word ragan is a very interesting word. It means to grumble, complain and slander. In Mishleh (Proverbs) we gain some insight into what it means to yirgaron (engage in grumbling) and what effect it has. Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a complainer (nirgan) are like blows and they descend to the chambers of one’s innards.” You will find another identical verse in Proverbs 26:22. Based on the commentary of Yalchut HaMachiri we understand that this verse is an example of how complaining is an attempt for when backed up into a difficult situation to try to overcome ones challenger by attacker a person at the heart of their character; instead of defending ones self, to complain/slander is to tear down the other. In the Torah we understand the innards, belly or stomach to be the seat of the emotions, so when one attacks with grumbling they seek to hit another at the “heart” of their emotional core. To him ‘um where it hurts. This is in effect what the People were doing when they said “Because he hated us he brought us out of the land of Egypt.” This was going against the words of Hashem that because of his ahavat olam, because of His Everlasting Love for Israel He brought them out of the land of Egypt to be a G-d to us.
Complaining and Duplicitous Nature
Proverbs 16:28 gives us further insight saying, “A duplicitous man incites strife, and a complainer estranges a ruler (v’nirgan maferid aluf).” Complaining “estranges” (maferid, root perek) means to disconnect or separate. But from whom? From ones aluf, which means ones commanding officer (in modern Hebrew it means Major-General) or champion. In a biblical context it can not only means leader, but also friend or companion. Who are our greatest champions than our friends? And what better leader is there than one who can be relied upon to rally to our aid? A complainer is one who through their words attempts to disconnect us from our source of strength and inspiration; to divide and conquer. It is an attempt to alienate us from those who really can help us the most! In this case it was to estrange the people from G-d.
What is intriguing to me is the verse pairs the complainer with the “ish tahefachot/ duplicitous man” who “incites strife.” Through out our previous weeks parsha studies we became familiar with the strife against Moses, as he was the representative of G-d’s will. Israel showed the clear signs of a duplicitous nature in that they complained about their dwelling in the wilderness and its horrible conditions, but when given the opportunity to escape that situation they refused to get up and get out of it. They complained about how sick and tired they were of the manna that they said was too light and tasteless, but when faced with fruit of size and abundance like they had never known they weren’t compelled to leave their displeasure behind and grasp the bounty presented to them!
That is the key to understanding a duplicitous person and complainer; they don’t really know what they want. They are tehafuchot, meaning unreliable and deceitful. This is because they are of a temperament that is hefek (the root word of tehafuchot), meaning contrary or opposite; they thrive on negativity. They are unreliable and cannot be trusted because they hafak, meaning revert or invert; they tell you one thing then say or do something completely opposite. I can tell you from personal experience that when one encounters a complainer or finds ones self to be overwhelmed by grumbling the situation is almost always tied to an insincere and half-hearted desire to resolve the cause of ones suffering. My best advice at this point in my life is to urge people to fight against a wishy-washy nature that keeps one in misery.
Grumbling in the Family: It’s Debilitating Effects
It appears to me in my reading of this parsha that Moses does seem to understand where the people were coming from, in that he listened to their sentiments. We read Moses quoting the people’s words, “Anah anachnu olim / Where shall we ascend? / acheinu hemasu et-levavenu / our brothers have melted our hearts.” (v.28). The word “brothers” here is not just figurative. In modern Hebrew some people use the word “achi” (my brother) liberally, but in this case here it in fact means relatives as each tribe sent out a representative scout to report back to their family/clans about the nature of the Promised Land.
So often I have seen and experienced the effects of disabling negativity of family members. It is a true tragedy in this world that so often people are hindered and harmed by the words of those closest to them. In so many families people literally kill each other with their words. But if we think about it, it is only those who are closest and dearest to use the have the device and opportunity to truly harm someone in the furthest depths of their soul. To a point the Children of Israel were correct here in saying in their defense, “How can we get up when even our own brothers are the ones knocking down our hopes?” We must be careful in our conduct and words to not victimize or become the victims of negativity of our loved ones.
Don’t Be So Impressed!
In closing, I want to point out where I think Moses not only shows his understanding and sympathetic nature, but also his wisdom in understanding the minutest workings of the psyche. In verse 29 we read, “Va’omar alechem lo-ta’artzun velo-tir’un mehem / I said to you, ‘Don’t be so impressed! Don’t be afraid of them!'” Who is being talked about? The people of Canaan; the supposed giants that dwelt in the Promised Land. Notice that my understanding of lo-ta’artzun, is “don’t be so impressed.” I also believe my view is supported by HaKethav VeHaKabbalah and Rav Hirsch. Some people would like to translate this verse as “Don’t be afraid, don’t fear.” However, we can see the text goes on to say “velo-tir’un / don’t be afraid,” which is a modified form of the common everyday phrase “al tira / Don’t be afraid!” or “Don’t worry!” So the first words lo-ta’artzun naturally mean something different. My understanding of this is based upon the fact to ha-aratz is to be respectful of, to admire and venerate.
“Don’t be so impressed, don’t fear them!” Here the children of Israel allowed themselves to become so impressed by the seeming greatness of these people that they became weak in the knees and mentally bowed at the feet of their adversaries. They were intimidated by the size inhabitants of the land and the height of the walls of the cities. It is one thing to have to deal with the other people lifting up your adversary, but it is much worse when one begins to believe the propaganda and see their adversary as better than ones self. Moses understood that the people would become disheartened and demoralized if they began to allow the situation and people to leave them with a sense of awe and fearful admiration. My friends, we need to not be so impressed by the bedazzlement of the challenges before us. Sometimes we make them out to be so much bigger than they are. Sometimes we hand the crown of victory to the opponent in intimidation.