On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -The Antidote to Kvetching - B'haalot'cha

Most of us today aren’t tasked with wandering through the desert, like the ancient Israelites were... but we still find plenty to kvetch about! What if, instead of focusing on small annoyances, we turned to community-building and togetherness? This episode first aired in May 2018.


[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future. But in the meantime, we're re-airing some of the best episodes of years past, our greatest hits, if you will.

This week we are re-sharing an episode from May 28, 2018, when Rabbi Jacobs taught us about [HEBREW]. In a timely message for today, he taught about the idea of [HEBREW], what it means to gather somebody up and make sure that nobody is left behind.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on [HEBREW] from The Book of Numbers. Has so many different facets. We're going to start with the opening of Chapter 11, where our ancestors are wandering through the desert, and get this, they're not happy about the cuisine. They're not happy about the amount of water. They're not happy about the schlepping through the desert.

And they do something that seems to be now codified in almost sacred terms. They begin to complain bitterly. The chapter begins, "The people took to complaining bitterly before the eternal." Complained bitterly sounds more like kvetching, if you ask me. That probably captures it a little bit more.

Can I just digress for a moment personally? My wife, who's an amazing leader in the arts field in New York City, brought home a little piece of art from her benefit a couple years back. And she hung it in our house, and I saw it. And the artist I remember, Mel Bochner, great artist. And the piece has three words. Actually, it's the same word written three times. It's kvetch, kvetch, and kvetch.

And I went immediately to my wife. I said, I got to kvetch about the kvetch painting in our house. I said, it seems completely superfluous to actually say those three words three times. Why don't we get a painting that says thank you, thank you, thank you? I think that would be more of a message. She said, I think you're missing the point of the piece, Rick. I said, I may be, but I just I think there's enough kvetching in our world and among our people.

And it reminded me that someone had just given me, around that time, a book, Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex. And I thought to myself, I'm not reading this book. And you know what I did before this podcast? I actually looked at the painting by Mel Bochner, Kvetch, Kvetch, Kvetch. I took open the book by Michael Wex. And I think there's something about our people and complaining and kvetching.

So he begins his book Born to Kvetch with the following story. He says, "A man boards a Chicago bound train in Grand Central Station. He sits down across from an old man reading a Yiddish newspaper. Half an hour after the train has left the station, the old man puts down his paper and starts to whine like a frightened child. Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty. Oy, am I thirsty.

The other man is at the end of his rope inside of five minutes. So he gets up and makes his way to the water cooler at the end of the car, fills up a cup of water, starts walking back, and he says, no, no. He fills up a second cup of water, comes to the seat, and the old man is clearing his throat, looks up, and the man hands him a cup of water. He drains that cup. He's then standing there holding a second cup, hands him the second cup as well. He drinks that as well. The man allows himself a little sigh of thanks. He leans into his seat, tilts his forehead toward the ceiling, and says just as loudly as before, oy, was I thirsty.

Now if that story does nothing for you my guess is you're probably not going to listen to my podcast next week. You're gonna think Rabbi Jacobs has got some odd ideas about a podcast. But I tell you this story because I think that when we reflect on is my glass half empty, is my glass half full, some of us actually don't see the glass at all.

And our Biblical ancestors were struggling for the spirituality of appreciation, to appreciate the food the, manna that they had. It wasn't all the food that they had had, even, when they were in Egypt, but to appreciate that which we have, and not just to long for what others have seemingly more of or better than.

And I think one of the fundamentals of becoming a community of spiritual practice is to do less of the kvetch and more of the expressions of gratitude and appreciation, even when it's not exactly everything that we want. And that feels, to me, to be powerful.

In this same [HEBREW] in Chapter 10, Verse 25, is a pretty remarkable little piece of spiritual greatness. It turns out that the different tribes are described having not only different numeric strength, but different qualities and different roles. And the Tribe of Dan, they're told to us that they're the ones who bring up the rear. Now the Hebrew word to describe their role is they are [HEBREW], from [HEBREW], which is a gathering or an assembly.

[HEBREW] means to gather up, gather up the things that are lost along the way. Just imagine all these people trekking through the desert. There are things that get left behind. But most importantly, people could get left behind, the vulnerable, the older, the young, the ones who have trouble walking and moving through the vast terrain. And the job of Tribe of Dan was not to leave anyone behind.

You want to know what it means to be a spiritual community? It means not leaving anyone behind. Instead of the kvetch, kvetch, how about, I would like to suggest to Mel Bochner this great artist. Maybe he does one [HEBREW], [HEBREW], [HEBREW]. How have each of us today brought up the rear, made sure that those who are society may be discarding, overlooking, leaving behind, that we are the ones who say no, no, no, not on our watch. We're going to help those people. We're going to give them our arm. We're going to give them our resources, our love, our care.

And in that way, the journey through the desert brought out some of the really difficult, challenging parts to our collective understanding. And it also brought out some of our greatness. And so too today. How do we make sure, as a community, to focus in on, frankly, that which is a gift, a blessing to us, acknowledge the challenges, and do everything we can to fix them.

But if we could, as a wider Jewish community, become those like the Tribe of Dan, that we are the [INAUDIBLE]. We are those who no matter-- everyone else can walk right by those vulnerable ones who are about to be left behind. We say no. No, no no. That's not who we are. It's not who our ancestors were. And they found the strength to carry those people on a journey. How long was their journey? It wasn't a day, wasn't a couple of days. It was a journey of 40 years.

And today, in all of our communities, wherever we live in the Jewish world, whether it's North America, somewhere around the world, or in the state of Israel, who are those people who are so vulnerable? And I just think that's what it means to be a spiritual community of courage, of depth, of conviction.

That's who we are striving to become. Let's appreciate the ways in which we do that. And let's also recommit ourselves to be those individuals, to be those leaders who show the way by doing that work. And if someone says, why are you doing that, you say, I am [HEBREW]. I'm doing what my Biblical ancestors in the Tribe of Dan did. And I'm doing it with just as much courage and just as much commitment.

And in that way, we'll all be on this journey. And where is this journey going? It's going to a better tomorrow. Who's going to be on that journey? Everybody. No one left behind.

[URJ Outro] And thanks for listening to Stories We Tell. If you enjoyed this week's story, please subscribe and rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can always find new episodes every Thursday on ReformJudaism.org. And don't forget to visit ReformJudaism.org dog to learn a little bit more about Jewish rituals or culture or holidays and more.

Stories We Tell is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, [HEBREW].