One of the disappointing things about the generation that left Egypt was their constant complaining. Each week, as we study Sefer Bamidbar , we witness another complaint, often more than one per week. Whether it's the food, the drinks, the leaders, the religious obligations, the long journey, or the dangers lurking, there is always something to complain about.
The lesson some derive from this is that constant complaining is destructive, and that it is important to be accepting of, if not happy with, our lot. However, while there is much to be said for such an approach, complaining does have its rightful place. Without complaint, one learns to accept one's lot; but often such acceptance is just plain wrong. Complaining is the initial step in an action plan to make things better. As believing Jews, we know that it is G-d who controls the world, and thus, it is G-d to whom we must initially turn with our complaints.
"Moshe returned to G-d (after his initial meeting with Pharoah) and said, O Lord, why do you mistreat Your people?...You have done nothing to help Your people" ( Shemot 5:22, 23). While there is some midrashic criticism of Moshe, the Biblical text tells us that this harsh complaint was followed by G-d's promise to redeem the Jewish people. The complacency of the Jewish people in accepting their subjugation did not allow for redemption. Only one who has the courage and foresight to complain about what should be the unbearable circumstances can lead the people to freedom. It appears as if G-d actually wanted Moshe to complain, that being the secret to salvation.
While Sefer Bamidbar is full of destructive complaining, it also has complaining of a more positive nature. The daughters of Zelofchad were unwilling to accept that their "father's name be diminished merely because he did not have a son" (27:4). Our Sages note that we bring merit through the meritorious, and that the results of their complaints were that "G-d spoke to Moshe, saying the daughters of Zelofchad have a just claim". In this week's parsha , it was the complaints of those who had been in contact with the dead, and were thus unable to participate in the pesach offering, that led to the laws of Pesach sheni . Interestingly, the same language-- lama yigara-- is used in both cases.
There is another complaint at the end of the parsha that indicates the very fine line between a legitimate complaint and whining. The Torah, rather cryptically, describes Miriam, and to a lesser extent Aharon, as "speaking" about Moshe. While Miriam's criticism of Moshe was unwarranted, her complaint was based on a (mistaken) understanding of her spiritual position--"Is it to Moshe exclusively that G-d speaks? Doesn't He also speak to us?" (12:2). Although she was punished with tzara'at , Moshe pleaded with G-d for her speedy recovery, and "the people did not move until Miriam was able to return home" (12:13).
This distinction between good and bad complaining is actually stated right in the C humash . "And the people were mittoninim ra" , translated literally as "complaining bad". If there is bad complaining, then of course there must be good complaining. And the difference, as articulated by the Torah, is clear. The Torah does not tell us what the mittoninim complained about. There are some who can be counted on to complain about anything--after all nothing is perfect. There is no need for a specific reason; complaining is just a knee-jerk reaction. That is bad complaining. But there are those whose complaints are rooted in a desire to help others, to come closer to G-d, to right an injustice, or because of their love for the land of Israel . That is good complaining, even--perhaps especially--when directed towards G-d.
While our complaints are often too many and too petty, ironically, we often do not complain enough. It seems to me that we are all too willing to accept mediocrity in our spiritual lives. We often lack that striving for excellence that ensures that good does not become the enemy of great. May we learn to complain wisely.