There’s a great old Jewish joke about the waiter in the kosher restaurant checking on a table of grumbling diners: “Was anything OK with your meal?” he asks.
This focus on the negative, on complaining, is so similar to the verses in Numbers 21:5 in which the Israelites in the wilderness, having just been freed from slavery, decry the “miserable food” and lack of water. They even turn the best of their situation into a negative: “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die…?”
God responds fiercely, sending venomous snakes, which immediately kill many complaining Israelites.
We Jews have a reputation for complaining, but on one hand, it’s something we can often be proud of.
To complain is another way to say “this is unjust”. We participate feistily in British democracy, and call out divisive politicians. We vehemently support whistle-blowers, who bring difficult complaints in challenging circumstances.
God tells every individual bitten by a snake that they will live if they look at a bronze snake made by Moses at God’s command.
God’s punishment for complaining is not as it first seems. When we look at Moses’ bronze snake, we are forced to see what bit us, to consider the impact of our complaining.
What is sharp or biting in our words of complaints to God or to other people?
Let’s call out what is wrong, but excessive negativity means we will eventually have to face the snake that bites us, the social or political consequences of failing to see the good that is in front of us.
God forces the Israelites to -consider the impact of their -complaints and, in doing so, reminds us that being brought out of Egypt to die must be seen as a blessing, as emancipation.
Laura Janner-Klausner is senior rabbi to Reform Judaism