Complaints can be constructive — or destructive

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

Complainers – they can be a real pain for those in leadership positions and can threaten the effectiveness of the leader.  They undermine the confidence of those being led as well as of the leader him/herself.  They often take valuable energy away from the completion of goals and objectives.  They can actually undermine a situation so much as to frustrate the completion of those goals and objectives completely.

There are, of course, different kinds of complaints.  There are those that one might call constructive criticisms – that is, complaints which are proffered in a spirit of helpfulness and partnership with the leader. There are also complaints which are offered, not in the spirit of constructive criticism, but simply as criticism.  Complaints can be made to the leader’s face or behind the leader’s back.  They can be offered in public or in private.  They can also serve another purpose.  They can be complaints which are meant to erode the confidence of the leader and those being led, which are meant to cause trust in the leader as a leader to be undermined, which attack not the plan but the planner.

Complaints and complainers abound in this week’s Torah portion, Korach.  There are complaints against the political leadership of Moses and against the religious leadership of Aaron.  Datan, Aviram and On attack Moses and accuse him of “lording” it over the rest of the Israelites.  Korach, for whom the Torah portion is named, attacks Aaron on the premise that Korach also is a Levite, yet Aaron and his sons are somehow elevated above the rest of the tribe of Levi to be High Priest and priests, respectively.  They all take advantage of the hardships of travel in the wilderness and of the general aura of complaining that has beset the Israelites throughout the journey to launch their attacks against Moses and Aaron, feeling confident that they will find agreement with a significant number of the Israelites, also dissatisfied with how the tour is going.

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This type of ad hominem attack is the worst possible type and can serve only one purpose – namely, to tear down the leader and to build up the complainer in the eyes of the people.  The Midrash, the rabbinic expositional literature, makes this even more explicit.  There the rebels are portrayed as attempting to mock Moses as the transmitter of God’s laws to the people. They present absurd arguments, quoting Torah and then taking the Torah’s statements to an extreme.   Their intent is not to learn the fine points of law but to make a mockery of Moses and the Torah which he has been teaching the people.

At one point, they even accuse Moses of hoodwinking the people into believing that there really is a land “flowing with milk and honey.”  In reality, they contend, the wilderness is all there is, and it is their fate to die and be buried in this God-forsaken no man’s land.  They seem to accuse Moses and Aaron of profiteering from the offerings.  Moses and Aaron are vindicated in the end through a test between Aaron and the rest of the Levites.

There are certainly situations in which complaining is necessary and even helpful.  However, there are also situations in which it is not.  The rebellions of Korach, Datan, Aviram and On are certainly not necessary nor helpful to the Israelites’ achieving their goal of reaching, conquering and settling the Promised Land.  They are not good examples of constructive criticism or complaints which are meant to facilitate good ends.  These men are examples of the type of person who is interested in grabbing power from those who legitimately hold it and in doing so by any means necessary, even if it serves to undermine everyone’s confidence and effectiveness.  Note that in this rebellion as in many which the Torah describes there are only complaints.  No alternative plan is offered; no attempt is made to help out.

There certainly are no fewer complainers today than in biblical times, and there still are complainers who do so for no reason other than to make their voices heard or to tear down the confidence of those in leadership or of those who are led.  There are also those who offer suggestions, whose concern is to help the leaders and to make the overall mission, goal or objective a success for all.  These latter are welcomed into any community and by anyone entrusted with a leadership role.  These latter work for the sake of Heaven.

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is Adjunct Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.