A young man of 18 years becomes a monk in a monastery that requires a vow of silence. He can only speak 2 words every 5 years. At the end of year 5 the head monk calls the kid in and says, “My boy you now can say 2 words.”
To which the child replies, “food bad.”
Five more years go by and the head monk says, “My boy you may now say 2 words.”
The boy says, “bed hard.”
At the end of the next 5 years the head monk calls the boy in and says, “You may now say 2 words.”
The young man says, “I quit.”
The head monk replies, “I’m not surprised, you’ve been complaining ever since you got here.”
וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְקֹוָק וַיִּשְׁמַע יְקֹוָק וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ וַתִּבְעַר־בָּם אֵשׁ יְקֹוָק וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה:
The nation complained in a negative/evil way in the ears of Hashem, and Hashem heard and He became angry, and He lit a fire which began consuming things at the edge of the camp.
The story is challenging, and it raises a number of questions:
First of all, what was so bad about the complaining that it leads to a fire!?
But maybe more confusing is Moshe’s reaction. After this story, we have the next complaint about food, and at this point Moshe turns to Hashem and he says:
במדבר פרשת בהעלותך פרק יא
(טו) וְאִם כָּכָה אַתְּ עֹשֶׂה לִּי הָרְגֵנִי נָא הָרֹג אִם מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וְאַל אֶרְאֶה בְּרָעָתִי: פ
If this is how it’s going to be, KILL ME.
Moshe Rabbeinu has seen Bnei Yisrael complain to him in Egypt even as he was just beginning to help them. He helped them reconstruct their relationship with Hashem after they sinned at the Egel HaZahav! But now, because they are complaining about food, now he wants to die!?
The mefarshim, too, are bothered by this whole story, and they offer a multitude of explanations.
Rashi writes that the language of MISONINIM comes from the word TOANA which is used in other places to mean “an excuse”. Says Rashi, there wasn’t anything to complain about. They had all their needs met. They were heading to Eretz Yisrael. The Ramban writes the same thing. There wasn’t anything in particular to complain about, they just started to feel bad for themselves and their lot.
The Bechor Shor, the Chizkuni and others writes that MISONINIM is from the word Onen – a mourner. They were mourning for themselves. The plan at that moment was to head right into Eretz Yisrael. They will have to fight wars – something they don’t know how to do - and they are scared. And hence, they complain.
Ksav Vehakabala, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg explains that the language of MISONINIM comes from the language of ANA V’ANA, feeling all alone, abandoned, wandering without direction and without protection.
Bnei Yisrael had just left midbar sinai, they had felt for so long that HKBH was with them, and now they are told they are heading into Eretz Yisrael to fight, and they begin to wonder, “is He going to stay with us?”
So, they complain, not because anything in particular is wrong, but almost out of a desire for attention, to see if HKBH is really still there watching over them.
And we see this clearly in even in their response to the punishment that is sent in response to the complaints.
ב וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְקוָק, וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ
They don’t daven to Hashem, they call out to MOSHE to DAVEN FOR THEM.
They are simply not ready for the responsibility of living a life as an autonomous people in their own land.
And this begins the downfall of this first generation that will never reach Eretz Yisrael. They were a nation that could experience revelation at Sinai but was incapable of carrying that inspiration with them back into their everyday lives.
Rav Moshe Weinberger points out that it is for THIS REASON that Moshe Rabbeinu responds are strongly as he does.
We have all experienced moments when things are going wrong and we simply just want to kvetch and complain. Hopefully, at some point, though, we realize that this approach won’t be helpful or productive. We can blame other people, circumstances, even HKBH for the difficulties in our lives. But in the end of the day, as long as we are stuck in the cycle of blame, as long as we continue to point fingers everywhere but at ourselves we will NEVER be able to move forward in our lives.
And it is for this reason that a Moshe Rabbeinu who was ready to storm the heavens on behalf of Bnei Yisrael after the Chet Ha’Egel is unwilling to do so now.
The Chet HaEgel was a mistake. A grave and tragic one. But he could work with that. If the people had a desire to grow and come close to HKBH and simply miscalculated in how to do it, he could teach them and encourage them because THEY HAD A DESIRE TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEMSELVES.
But when someone is stuck in the cycle of blame, when they aren’t ready TO HELP THEMSELVES, then there isn’t any way to help. And so, shockingly, Moshe seems to GIVE UP!
Eventually HKBH finds him help, the 70 Zekeinim (Elders) and of course we know Moshe will now guide these people for the rest of their lives and prepare their children to enter Eretz Yisrael. However, this moment, the moment when they LOST FAITH IN THEMSELVES, the moment when they became UNWILLING to take responsibility for their own happiness, is the moment when this first generation’s fate is all but sealed.
And perhaps this is why the Torah doesn’t even tell us the original complaint of the misoninim. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what it was. It wasn’t about WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO THEM, it was about their ATTITUDE, their MINDSET in how they dealt with it.
Roy Baumeister & John Tierny, authors of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength and social psychologists at Florida State University, conducted a study to consider the connection between meaning and happiness, and they were interviewed by the Atlantic to discuss their findings.
They found that oftentimes those who have the most meaning in their lives actually have LOWER levels of happiness, but in the end they have higher levels of life satisfaction.
They found that people whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with a meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low “happiness” among parents.
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister said in the interview.
Maybe the most fascinating piece of data was that having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. This confirms the finding of another study from 2011 which found that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose.
The point being, that the more we focus on infusing MEANING into our lives, the more satisfaction we will find in life, NO MATTER THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT COME OUR WAY.
As Frankl most notably wrote: ‘Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.
Ultimately, this is perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the story of the misoninim. We will never be able to determine that which happens in our lives. But if we are willing to spend our time on this Earth infusing it with a little less happiness and a little more meaning - finding the WHY - then we will hopefully be able to bear just about any how.