Sermon for Parashat Hukkat: Squeaking, Squawking, Speaking

Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 29 June 2020

How do you behave when you feel that life isn’t treating you fairly?

I was reminded recently of one of the last conversations I ever had with my mother. She had just woken up, looked around her and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how we dream about the things we can’t have’. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked.  ‘Well, in the camps, we always dreamed about food.’

As many of you know, my mother had survived a concentration camp as a teenager.  She considered herself to have been fortunate and was generally a vivacious and upbeat person who hardly ever complained about what happened to her.  She was a peace activist and vociferous about world issues, but in her personal life, if something seemed beyond reach, it had to stay in your dreams.

It’s a strange legacy, growing up with that background. On the one hand, I was conditioned from an early age to try and look positively at any situation – and it’s a habit of mind which I think is probably a good one.  One the other hand, if we dared to show a  hint of dissatisfaction about something, somewhere in the air – even if it wasn’t uttered aloud – was that rebuke “you don’t know how lucky you are….”

It made me pathetic at complaining when I was younger, even when there was valid reason to complain.  I would save up my annoyance until something, usual trivial, made it boil over… and then it would come out trite and petty. I believe this is called a ‘squeak’.  It made me sound like the person I was trying so hard not to be – the perpetual whinger.

Yet if something isn’t right, don’t we have a duty to help bring about change? I do so admire people who can ‘squawk’ effectively rather than squeak, even if they are sometimes embarrassing.  Apparently, as with so much else in life, there are guidelines on how to do it.  So here, from a popular website[1] are some of the ‘Habits of Effective Complainers’:

  • Focus on the most important issues
  • Complain to someone who is actually in a position to do something about it
  • Don’t save up all your grouses so that the listener feels overwhelmed.
  • Don’t whinge so often that people stop listening

Our poor Israelite ancestors in the desert clearly hadn’t read that website. We read this morning about them complaining yet again. I actually counted that this is at least the tenth time since leaving Egypt that there has been either a general moan, or some sort of challenge to Moses’ leadership, starting even before they had crossed the Red Sea.

This time it is:  ‘why did you make us leave Egypt’, ‘why have you brought us to this horrible desert’, ‘there isn’t any decent fruit’, oh yes – and ‘there isn’t any water to drink’.

So often when we read this story, we focus on how dissatisfied and grumbly the people were, and how wrong Moses was to hit the rock when he had been told to speak to it. As you might expect, I would like to offer a different angle:

Let’s look again at our reading.[2]  First of all, these are not the slaves who left Egypt. This is a generation who were born and grew up in the desert, as free people on their way to their own land.  Wouldn’t you lose your temper if you were Moses?  Like a parent with nearly grown-up kids who still expect everything to be done for them, and who whinge whenever things go wrong? Moses and Aaron are old and tired, their sister Miriam has just died, it all feels too much, and God just says “talk to the rock” (as if talking to stone ever achieved anything). Shouldn’t the people have been more sympathetic, waited for a better moment before complaining?

ACTUALLY, NO.  There was no water. Their most basic needs were not being met. They were thirsty, they were worried about their children and their animals.  This wasn’t about Moses.  The people needed water.  Their complaint was justified, even if they didn’t go about it in the best way.

Moses was wrong in the way he reacted, not just that he hit the rock but that he accused the people of being fools or rebels.  Of course no-one is at their best when they are stressed and coping with family matters, especially bereavement – but no-one should expect people to be ‘reasonable’ when they don’t have enough to eat or drink.

As someone wrote on the Limmud website a few years ago,[3]

“It’s all too easy to assume that an act of rebellion, be it in classroom,  a congregation , or on the global stage, is an act designed to cause tumult and defy authority or leadership… but when there is a dire need, a lack of water, or (lack of) justice…we must listen and learn

So this is not a sermon about how to complain effectively – although I would certainly like to ‘squeak’ less and ‘squawk’ more.  I am talking about the responsibility of every one of us to listen carefully and to hear the truth behind a grumble or a shout.  What seems like a complaint or rebellion may be a completely justified grievance, if the person’s needs or rights are not being recognised – even if we happen not to like the way they are speaking. Listen and learn.  Even if “you” or “I” didn’t cause the problem in the first place, I become part of the problem if I deny that it exists, or if I happen to be benefitting from it, or if I prevent it from being addressed.

Am I talking about Black Lives Matter? Yes, of course.  Am I talking about MeToo? Yes of course, – and also about injustice wherever it occurs. Perhaps that is why it is so important that our morning prayers every day include those questions for reflection:

What is our life? What is our justice?  What is the source of our salvation? What power do we have (to change the world)?[4]

What about Moses?  After hitting the rock, God tells him that his time as leader is very nearly over.  Perhaps that wasn’t even a punishment, it was a statement of fact.   Moses was not a bad person.  He had done a remarkable job for years, even if his leadership was more about miracles and a ‘stick’ than about ‘speaking’.  But nearly 40 years down the line, this was a new generation of Israelites who needed a different leadership style.  It was time for him to step down.

There are times when what we need, let alone want, is genuinely not available, and all we can do is dream about it. But now, when people are airing justified grievances and demanding rights, let this be a time for listening and talking, even to the ‘rocks’, so that no-one feels the need to use sticks.

[1] Psychology Today

[2] Numbers 20: 1- 13

[3] Andrew Keene, Limmud on One Leg, Parashat Hukkat 2016

[4] Forms of Prayer p36 and p167