Jews love to complain.
That has been true throughout Jewish history, and especially when it comes to Jewish humor. It reminds me of the one about two old Jewish men who are sitting on a park bench. One looks at the other and says, “Oy.” The other looks back and says, “Oy.” This is repeated again and again until the first man says, “I thought we weren’t going to talk politics today.”
Kvetching. Complaining. This is the constant theme in the story of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness. It starts in this week’s Torah portion when the Israelites start complaining, whining and grumbling immediately after gaining their freedom.
I can understand frustration. I am frustrated that we are still in this pandemic and we are struggling to flatten the curve. I am frustrated that our children cannot live the normalcy we all want for them. I am frustrated when items at the grocery store sell out because there is a panic.
So how can we let the complaining out in a healthy way?
Sarah Hurwitz describes in her book “Here All Along” a form of Chasidic prayer called Hitbodedut. It refers to a practice of self-secluded Jewish meditation popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
The practice, as he taught, is an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation through which each individual establishes a close, personal relationship with God through a free-flowing monologue. While some people go out into the woods and make a primal scream, Jews — at least Jews who are students of this practice — go out into the wilderness and kvetch.
Not only kvetch, but thank, question, plead, wonder, acknowledge and unload without stopping to think or formulate your thoughts. You just talk to God. It’s a stream of consciousness that takes some practice. It can be incredibly cathartic and remarkably revealing of your inner thoughts and feelings.
It’s not unlike the famous Jewish folk story of the young uneducated shepherd who comes to the synagogue to pray. Not knowing the prayers of the established liturgy, he sits in the back row and sings the alphabet over and over again. The men of the synagogue confront him: “Why do you disturb our prayers with your gibberish?”
The boy explains, “I don’t know the prayer. But I wish to thank God for my sheep and the stream, for the warmth of the sun and the silver moon that keeps me company when I sleep. I only know the alphabet and surely God can put the letters in the correct order to make the prayers.”
Ashley Southard, a local marriage and family therapist, in an iGen Parenting session last spring, encouraged us to care of our mental health during this unprecedented time. She offered numerous suggestions and helpful coping mechanisms. “In this worrying and frightening time, give voice, actual voice, to your thoughts and feelings, your fears and your anxieties,” she said. “Say them to your family members. Write them in a journal. Express them through art.”
Great advice. And, I would add, share them with God. Not to change God, not to stop the virus, but to change yourself. To give you insight and courage, patience and perspective, confidence and hope and calm and gratitude. In doing so, you might just find your prayers — not those in a prayer book or on a computer screen — but the prayers that are deep in your soul.
Go out into the desert, where they tell us the virus is not as communicable outside, and talk to God. Cry to God, be silent with God. It’s all prayer, and it all helps. I know it is helping me; I pray that it will help you. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.