Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
What The Israelites Really Complained About
In Parshat Beshalach we're introduced to a nation of whiners and complainers. After years of slavery, the Israelites are finally a free nation! The next thing we should be reading is a love story between God and His people. But the honeymoon phase ends before it even begins.
How could the Israelites complain so much in the wilderness after God just freed them from slavery? How did they lose faith in God so quickly?
In this video, we explore what the Israelites really complained about, and how complaining impacted their relationship with God – but not in the way you think.
Watch more in our course: "The Three Great Lies Of The Exodus."
David: Welcome to Parshat Beshalach. This parsha begins a brand new era – and a new chapter of the Torah's story.
The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, and finally, they're saved. For the very first time, they're a free nation. The next thing we should expect is a romantic story of the love between God and Israel. We should hear about Israel's unequivocal gratitude to God!
Immanuel: But the honeymoon ends before it even starts. The next three stories are all about complaints.
Why Did the Israelites Complain so Much?
Immanuel: Three days after they're freed, the people complain to Moses, מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה – "what are we supposed to drink??"
In the next chapter: מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד-יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, – how we wish we would have been killed by God in Egypt, בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל-סִיר הַבָּשָׂר, בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע – over our pots of meat, as we were satiated with bread! כִּי-הוֹצֵאתֶם אֹתָנוּ אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית אֶת-כָּל-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה בָּרָעָב – because you've taken us out into this desert to kill all of us with starvation!
And in the next chapter, they get thirsty again: לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת-בָּנַי וְאֶת-מִקְנַי, בַּצָּמָא – why have you taken us out of Egypt just to kill us, our children, and our livestock, with thirst?
David: How can they complain so soon after God freed them from slavery? Didn't they see God perform crazy miracles? After the splitting of the sea, the verse told us, ויאמינו בה' – they believed in God. How did they lose faith so quickly???
Let's get to the heart of these three stories, this week, on the Parsha Experiment. Hi, I'm David Block.
Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Let's take a look at our 20-second parsha recap:
- Pharaoh sends his army to bring Israel back to Egypt.
- God splits the Sea of Reeds allowing Israel through, but closing it on Pharoah's army.
- Israel sings a song of praise to God.
- They run out of water, complain, and God provides.
- They run out of food, complain, and God gives them meat and manna, and tells them not to collect food on the Sabbath.
- They run out of water again, complain again, and God provides again.
- Amalek attacks, but Israel wins so long as Moses' arms are raised.
What Did the Israelites Really Complain About in the Wilderness?
David: So, how could Israel complain so soon after they were saved? The key may not be to look at what they complain about, as much as who they complain to.
In the first story, וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה – the people complain against Moses. In the second story, וַיִּלּוֹנוּ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – the people complain against Moses and Aaron. And in the third story, וַיָּלֶן הָעָם עַל-מֹשֶׁה – again, they complain against Moses.
Why Did the Children of Israel Complain to Moses, Not God?
David: Not once, in any of these stories, do they complain to God. They yell at Moses for taking them out of Egypt only to die in the desert. And it makes no sense… Moses didn't take them out, God did! Did they forget that?
Immanuel: And Moses' reaction also seems strange. In the second story, he doesn't give them answers or even address the content of the complaints… He says: וְנַחְנוּ מָה, לֹא-עָלֵינוּ תְלֻנֹּתֵיכֶם כִּי עַל-יְהוָה – "why are you complaining against us? This should be against God!!"
It's easy to understand Moses' frustration but pointing fingers? That just feels like the wrong way to go. But maybe Moses isn't just shirking responsibility. Let's look at this from Israel's perspective: Why turn to Moses instead of complaining directly to God?
David: Throughout the Exodus story, the people have only seen God in one way: a powerful force concerned with the bigger picture. We saw in Parshat Va'era that God had an agenda: to teach the world that He's God.
From Israel's perspective, their freedom could've been an incidental byproduct of God's agenda – they were freed when Egypt was destroyed. God never did anything actively for them… God just didn't afflict them like He did Egypt.
Immanuel: But then, three days after Egypt's destruction, the miracles end, and Israel doesn't see God anymore. They run out of water, and wonder: if God has large-scale agendas, maybe God doesn't care about providing basic needs for such a small people. So they turn to Moses – the person who has been with them from the outset, who interacts with them, who has promised salvation.
What they do is far more than merely complain for food. They're asking Moses: God's not with us? We're too small? All those promises for a better future, was that just you?
Now look again at Moses' response. When he says, "Your complaints aren't against me, they're against God," he's not shirking responsibility. He's answering the question that they're really asking: "God purposefully and carefully saved you from Egypt. God is with you. God does care. So, turn to Him."
God Responds to the Israelites' Complaints in the Wilderness
David: God's responses address that very doubt. After their first complaint, God provides water and says: כָּל-הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם, לֹא-אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ, – all of the plagues that I put on Egypt, I won't do that to you, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, רֹפְאֶךָ, because I'm God, your healer. Why does God need to say that here, when all they asked for was water?
God responds to what they were really asking: "I know that you've only seen me in one way: concerned with the heavy-hitters, powerful nations like Egypt. But If you follow me, you'll see, we can have a relationship. I'll take care of you."
Immanuel: In response to their second complaint, God says, "I'll provide you with food, וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – and you'll know that I Am Hashem… your God." That's the emphasis: Your God.
The people said how they wish they would've died over their meat pots in Egypt. So God doesn't just sustain them… He gives them meat. God shows them, not only does he care about them generally, but he cares so deeply that He even listens to their food preferences!
David: After the third complaint, God tells Moses: וּמַטְּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הִכִּיתָ בּוֹ אֶת-הַיְאֹר–קַח בְּיָדְךָ, – take in your hand the staff with which you hit the Nile. וְהִכִּיתָ בַצּוּר וְיָצְאוּ מִמֶּנּוּ מַיִם – and you'll hit the rock, and water will come out. What does this remind you of?
Let's go all the way back to right before the first plague. God says to Moses: וַיָּרֶם בַּמַּטֶּה וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר – raise your staff and hit the water of the Nile! God is purposely taking us back to that moment. Israel knew that the plagues came from God – even though they were performed through Moses.
Here, God commands Moses to take that very same staff and to replicate that. Hitting the rock in the same way as he hit the Nile is a throwback, a way of saying: "The God that did all those miracles in Egypt? That's the same God providing for you right now!" And it's even more than that: This staff which was an agent of destruction, isn't just the weapon of a vengeful God. It's a tool of a God who loves you and wants to sustain you.
Immanuel: In each of these stories, God responds by saying or doing something that's meant to show that He's with them and cares about them. But there's still something strange going on. Why does God wait so long to provide water and food? Why let it get to the point of complaining?!
God actually tells us why. It's all in order to test them. וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ – there, I tested them. לְמַעַן אֲנַסֶּנּוּ – in order to test them. Was it just a test of faith? That seems like a really tough test to pass. But perhaps that wasn't the test at all.
Neither Moses nor God ever yells at them for complaining. Worrying is a legitimate human response. But, when they get scared, to whom do they turn? That was the test: complain, fine. But will you direct your complaints to God? Can you see God beyond the big-picture agenda, and realize that God is there, craving a relationship with you.
Maybe Moses wants to train them to pass the test, to realize that God really is with them. Don't complain to me... complain to God – He's listening!
How Does Complaining Impact Our Connection With God?
David: Now look at the verse that closes the last of these stories. This place is named Massa U'meriva – test and struggle – after the challenge that Israel faced there. What was that challenge? הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן – is God really with us, b'kirbeinu – in our midst, or not?
They know that God exists and that He's all-capable. But can they realize that God cares about them? Here's the cool part. If we pull back the zoom lens... it seems like the Israelites themselves do what we like to do in the Parsha Experiment. They look back at what they experienced in the last few parshiot and try to make sense of what happened in the big picture.
Shmot, Va'era, and Bo were all about God's macro agenda, God's power, God's ability to destroy mighty nations. So maybe that's who God is.
Immanuel: This week, they discover what they couldn't see when they were suffering in Egypt. God's agenda isn't just about destruction… it's about recognizing God as Creator – as a parent. He loves us, cares about us. God demonstrates that to Israel over and over again, with miracles that are loving instead of destructive.
The first and most important thing they need to know as a nation is: God wants to have a relationship. And what we'll find in the next weeks – and throughout the Torah – is what that really means: How can we, human beings, have a loving relationship with the Divine?
David: Join us next week, on the Parsha Experiment.
Subscribe today to join the conversation.
Already a subscriber? Log in here!