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What is the sin that ruins it all? Even the sin of the Golden Calf – an idolatrous lapse at the holiest moment in the relationship between God and the Jewish people – was not beyond atonement and rectification. What could be worse? What sin cannot be atoned for?
Our parasha and the ones that follow chronicle a series of negative events: the complaints of the people who lust for meat, Miriam speaking ill of Moses, the spies and the defamation of the land, and the challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership. All of these events can be summed up with a single word: complaints. But what is so bad about complaints? There is no commandment in the Torah “Thou shalt not complain.” Furthermore, what can be more human than complaining? In order to answer that question, let us examine the complaints. It will become apparent that they are not the problem, but rather what motivates them.
Past, Present, and Future
The Israelites’ complaints do not begin in Numbers: as far back as Parashat Beshallaĥ the people moan about a lack of water and food (Ex. 15:17). However, as Elchanan Samet points out, in Bashallaĥ the complaints appear justified – there is indeed a dearth of food and water at the outset of the journey. Even if the people could have dealt with it in a more positive fashion, the complaints are understandable. In our parasha, on the other hand, the complaints are of an entirely different nature.
“The people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled” (Num. 11:1). “Murmuring” in this context signifies a complaint of sorts. But we are not told what the people complain about. That omission, it seems, conveys something that is true of the other complaints as well: the thing that the people complain about is not the source of the complaint, but at best a pretext. An inability to recognize this truth can generate the delusion that if only the complainer were to receive his “heart’s desire,” everything would sort itself out. It is a delusion shared by both the complainer and the party that wants to help him. But the truth is that some people’s basic outlook on life is negative. This negativity underpins their entire point of view, coloring their perception of reality. They walk around with the conviction that others want to harm them, and are blind to the many opportunities for a blessed improvement to their lives. They see only what is missing and never what there is. They are always wanting, always miserable.
This skewed perspective, sadly, is not a thing of the past. Hoshea Friedman Ben Shalom, who heads Beit Yisrael, a pre-military academy geared toward contributing to Israeli society, likens our present times to the generation of the Exodus. We are fortunate to live in a time where great things are happening, the most important century for the Jewish people in the last two thousand years, but people are caught up in squabbles and petty complaints.
Complaints are not a one-off occurrence or a temporary lapse. They are an expression and reflection of the people’s life, and characteristic of a general atmosphere. A distorted perception of reality can put negativity center-stage, no matter how good things are. The sin of the Golden Calf can be overcome, but there is no overcoming a fundamentally warped worldview. Formulated in terms of “doing” and “being,” if a sin is in the realm of “doing” – it can be transcended. But when its root is in “being,” it manifests a deep inner world, and God’s forgiveness will solve nothing, because it does not catalyze inner change.