There's a joke that started making the rounds when Jews from the former Soviet Union began arriving in large numbers in Israel:
"So, really, how was life back in Russia?" a Sabra asks a new immigrant, just arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union.
"I couldn't complain," he answers.
"And how were your living quarters there?"
Again, the same answer: "I couldn't complain."
"And your standard of living?"
And again, "I couldn't complain."
"Well," responds the Israeli, "if everything was so good back in Russia, why did you bother coming here?"
"Oh," replies the new oleh, "here I can complain!"
If we were to rename this week's Torah portion, my suggestion would be Sefer Kvetch--the Book of Complaints. The Israelites at long last leave Sinai and begin their monumental journey to the Promised Land. But almost as soon as they set out, the Book of Numbers tells us, "the people took to complaining bitterly.?" (Numbers 11:1) And complain they did, on and on and on. Every parent can sympathize with Moses' frustration as he pleads with God: "I alone cannot carry this entire nation.? If this is how You deal with me, then kill me now.?" (Numbers 11:14-15) "Daddy, are we there yet?" Can you imagine hearing that well-worn phrase from a couple of million children?
But the commentators looked closely at the Hebrew text and saw it does not say that "the people complained," but that "the people were like complainers." The people were not actually complaining out loud: They were just murmuring under their breath. That is why God became angry. All the people were grumbling, but they never bothered to tell anyone what the problem was.
As Rabbi Pinchas Peli z"l points out, God does not get angry at people who complain for good reason. If the complaints are justified or warranted, then people should speak up to make their concerns heard. When the Israelites were hungry, they complained and God provided them with manna. (Exodus 16:4) When Israel was without fresh water, they complained and God made the water sweet. (Exodus 15:25) But by now the Israelites have moved out into the wilderness, have organized themselves and have seen that God will care for them. Therefore, they are complaining without reason. They have everything they need, yet they continue to grumble. This unwarranted complaining angered God and brought the otherwise patient Moses to the point of despair.
A person who lives in a free society has the right to complain about wrongs and injustice. Too often we become complacent and probably don't complain enough. However, we must make sure that our complaints are fair and that we follow up with actions to right the wrongs. Otherwise we become k'mitonenim—like murmurers—complaining for no reason other than the desire to complain. In so doing, we try the patience of others and, more likely, risk the ire of God.