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Cache of the Day

Sima Freidel Steinbaum

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It’s a standard answer to a standard question.

“How you doing?”

“Can’t complain.”


You can’t complain? Sure you can. And that’s what makes the response so remarkable. You could complain but you’re not; moreover, you’re deliberately, consciously, choosing not to.

“My life might not be perfect right now,” you’re saying, in effect, “but even so, I can’t find anything to complain about.” Impressive. Even more impressive when we consider just how many people, no matter how well things are going, definitely can, and do, complain, i.e., “to express dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, censure, resentment, or grief; to find fault.”

But our lives — when we look through eyes of emunah — are always perfect. We may not be up to feeling that way all the time, because feeling that way all the time takes a lot of serious, intensive, grueling personal work. But whether or not we’re currently feeling that way, the classic, time-tested Jewish response to “How you doing?” is “Baruch Hashem.” Life may not seem perfect. It may not feel perfect. But “Baruch Hashem” says that I know that Hashem knows exactly what He’s doing, and so, it is perfect, even if, right now, I’m not there.

In Parshas Beshalach, which we’ll read this month, we find the Hebrew word for complain, lon, (root lamed-vov-nun).

Shemos 15:24: “The people complained [yi’lonu] to Moshe, saying ‘What shall we drink?’$$separatequotes$$”

Shemos 16:2: “The entire Israelite community began to complain [yi’lonu] against Moshe and Aharon.”

Shemos 16:7: (Moshe and Aharon are speaking) “He has heard your complaints [tlunoseichem], which are against G-d. After all, what are we that you should complain against us?”

And another word for complain, onen, from Bamidbar 11:1: “The people began to complain [misonenim].”


Rabbi Yakov Horowitz:

“The Torah introduces the topic of the complaints of the Jews by describing them as ‘misonenim.’ The loose translation of this word would perhaps be ‘complainers.’ However, this is not a word used often in the Torah, and many meforshim attempt to explain the exact meaning of misonenim in the context of this phase in the development of the Bnei Yisrael — as they expressed their unhappiness to Moshe.

“Rashi explains misonen (singular of misonenim) as similar to ‘mislonen’, which would mean ‘alilah’ a [baseless] complaint.

“The Ibn Ezra feels that the word misonen is similar to an avon — a spiritual misdeed (in this case, the aleph and ayin would be exchanged, as the Ibn Ezra notes another instance of this in Navi). Hence, the Jews sinned by complaining to Moshe.”

All complaints, it seems, are in effect complaints against Hashem.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller and Sara Yoheved Rigler:

“Whenever you hear your inner voice complaining about what you lack, go on high alert and assume battle position. You are under the attack of the yetzer hara … The message of the yetzer hara is always: ‘You don’t have what you need’… The best armor to protect yourself from the yetzer hara’s attack is the attitude, ‘Everything I need I have.’ (Page 20–22, Battle Plans, ArtScroll/Shaar Press)

And all complaints are the voice of the yetzer hara.


There’s a drought in Eretz Yisrael. Fast days have been declared for rain, prayer meetings, Tehillim, the works. But within a few hours after the year’s first rain had started, the joy had worn off and the complaints had started pouring in. It was too cold. It was too windy. It was too wet (well, yeah!). Etc., etc., etc. A friend commented that we seem to daven for rain the same way we daven for Mashiach; we “really, really” want it … then we realize that we don’t “really, really” want it, at least not right now.

There’s an Uncle Moishy song warning parents never to take their kids to a store, because:

All you’re gonna hear is, ‘we want more and more!’ They were crying, they were shouting, why, I’ll bet one even screamed, and you whispered, ‘Please be quiet, we don’t want to make a scene.’ So you bought them all they wanted, more than you can afford, and an hour after you got home, they said.... ‘TATTY, WE ARE BORED!’

Aren’t we the same, with the rain, as those kids? Will we be the same with Mashiach? When Mashiach shows up, will we all be screaming, and complaining, “Tatty [Hashem!], we are bored!”?


Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the root of to complain, lamed-vov-nun, is the same root as the word meaning to take refuge, to find shelter from possible danger, as in Bereishis, 19:2, (Lot speaking to the angels, in Sdom) “…spend the night [v’linu] and wash your feet, then wake up early and go your way” and Tehillim 25:13, “His soul will repose [talin] in goodness.”

That makes a lot of sense. The ones who generally do the most complaining, who speedily seek refuge behind loudly voiced complaints may not even realize that their purpose in seeking refuge is to distract attention and blame from themselves, and to seek an external, rather than an internal, reason for any, and all, complaints.

They are seeking refuge from their own insecurities, inadequacies, or feelings of low self-worth. They are choosing to point a finger anywhere and everywhere but at themselves. They are assiduously looking out rather than in. These are the complainers, blamers, or bullies of the world.

If things don’t go their way, instead of looking at their own part in what’s going wrong, or exploring how they can fix it, they assuage their own guilt by blaming someone, anyone, else. Instead of trying to rise to the occasion spiritually, they take refuge in small thinking, as if it was Moshe, rather than Hashem, who was responsible for what they “lacked.”

Every complaint is in essence a complaint against G-d. Next time we hear ourselves start complaining, let’s avoid that false “refuge,” and instead be open, even eager, to examine our own part in things — and what we can do to make them better. Then maybe instead of answering with “Can’t complain,” we’ll let loose with the authentic Jewish shout-out: “Baruch Hashem!”

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