By Rabbi Daniel Levitt
This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, begins by describing a general murmuring of complaints and negativity against God, which resulted in God causing a fire to begin to devour the edge of the camp.
Viewed from a literal perspective, it is hard to understand the reason for the devouring fire as a punishment for some complaining. I would like to suggest a more metaphorical interpretation in which they were being consumed by their negativity.
At first, it was only on the outskirts of the camp — or their consciousness — but left unchecked, negativity has the potential to become like a devouring fire.
Immediately following this introduction, the negativity rears its head again, this time in a literal way. A few outliers started to complain about the lack of variety in their diet; only once they started complaining did the rest of the people join in the complaining and say, “It was better for us as slaves in Egypt, if only someone would serve us some meat!” (Perhaps it was the first, but not the last time Jews complained about the catering!)
The negativity was infectious. It was so infectious that it impacted Moses as well. After Moses heard their complaints, he started complaining to God that dealing with these people was too much of a burden for him. The overall picture is of a community whose culture of negativity had infected the entire group.
It is not uncommon for individuals, families, groups, organizations, communities (perhaps entire societies), etc., to get caught in similar negative ruts. This narrative in the Torah becomes important advice on how an individual or a group should deal with the negativity that often infects and then radiates outward.
In response to this situation, God told Moses to gather a community of positivity around him and share some of the positive forces in his life with that community. After he successfully got himself out of a rut by actively sharing positivity with other influential people, God turns his message to those leaders to spread the positivity to a wider community and instruct them to, as it says in the verse (11:18), “Get yourselves ready, for tomorrow you will eat meat.”
But meat wasn’t going to just appear; they had to get ready. Similarly, negativity doesn’t just go away — it requires a choice to act by the people most effected by the negativity. From Moses to the elders to the people, the cycle needed to be reversed. God said, “Moses you need to snap out of it. Instead of wallowing in complaints and self-pity, be proactive.”
The simple lesson for us is, if we are stuck in a rut, we must choose to see things differently; we need to create an environment for positivity to take root and grow.
To drive this message home, in the very next episode of the parshah, we see another complaint and we see how to handle the situation in a positive manner. There are two men who are prophesying in the camp without sanction, concerned about the impact on Moses’s authority, Joshua runs to complain about this to Moses.
Instead of being caught in the complaining trap and causing a domino effect of negativity, Moses spins the situation with a positive outlook, saying, “Are you jealous for me, if only all of God’s people could prophet.”
It would’ve been easy for Moses to get upset — most people would have — and then reacted negatively and spread the negativity around some more. Moses identifies the beginning of a negative thought pattern and chooses to take a more positive approach.
Negativity and complaining are a part of life. Everyone has ups and downs. But left unchecked they can have real repercussions on ourselves, our loved ones and our communities both physically and emotionally.
For some of us, this advice will hopefully add positivity in our lives and minimize unnecessary complaining.
It’s important to note that extreme negative feelings can also be a symptom of clinical depression caused by chemicals in our brain, not just by negative thought patterns. In the case of depression, a person will not be able to remove themselves from the negative thought patterns. It is important that they seek external help from experts when they see a constant pattern of negativity in their lives that they are not able to remove.
Left unchecked, negativity festers and begets more negativity — and it hurts us. We owe it to ourselves and the people around us, to do whatever it takes to actively make a point to inject more positivity in our lives.
Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: The Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.