Over the course of their 40 years traveling through the desert, the Jewish nation complained to Moshe Rabbeinu on multiple occasions. Additionally, some participated in grave sins like the Golden Calf, the sending of the Spies, etc. Moshe seemed to be able to tolerate and deal with every single episode, with only one exception. In this week’s parsha, when the Jews complained about the Mun (Manna), Moshe was crushed. For the first and only time in his long career as our leader, he told Hashem to kill him and grieved in a way that he had never done before.
Now, I can understand that complaining about the Mun was a great sin, but how could it be worse than sins like the Golden Calf and worse than their many other complaints, in which we don’t find Moshe making such grave comments???
We can answer this by addressing another question: The Vilna Gaon writes that the purpose of life, as well as all of the mitzvos, is to perfect one’s middos (character traits) (brought at the beginning of sefer “Even Shlaimah”). Why is there such a focus on perfecting one’s middos in Judaism? Why can’t one be great if he excels in mitzvos and fulfilling the entire Torah, while avoiding working on his character altogether by, for example, living in solitude?
The following Midrash will shed profound insight on this topic and answer our questions:
Onkelos, the author of the Torah commentary found in every Chumash, was the nephew of the evil Titus (who destroyed the Bais HaMikdash) and had a very close relationship with him. Years after Titus died, Onkelos converted to Judaism. Before he did so, he had his uncle Titus raised from the dead through magic to ask his advice. "Who is the most important in the Next World?”, he asked. Titus answered, "The Jews are”. Onkelos asked, ‘Should I join them?’ Titus responded, ‘No! They have too many laws; you wouldn’t be able to observe them all. Better to fight against them and be a leader in the world, as it says, ‘Those who oppressed them were on top (Megillas Eichah 1:5)’ ”. Onkelos pressed his uncle "What is your judgment in the Next World?”. "My judgment is what I decreed on myself. Every day I am burnt anew and my ashes are scattered over the seven seas” (Gittin 56b).
How could Titus, who was in the Next World and who admitted that he was personally witnessing that Hashem is G-d, that the Jews are His chosen people, and who was suffering unimaginably for oppressing the Jews, utter such a ridiculous statement? How could he see first-hand that the wicked are punished to the severest degree possible and still recommend his nephew to follow his doomed fate??
The answer is quite profound: the middos (character traits) and attitude that we cultivate in This World, become a permanent part of us and will remain with us for all of eternity, EVEN in the World to Come. Whether I develop my character in This World to be virtuous or selfish, peaceful or filled with hate, recognizing and appreciating that everything I have is from Hashem and being happy with my lot or not - these are the thoughts, attitudes and character traits that I will be stuck with for all of eternity. Although it was clearly ridiculous and irrational for Titus to say “Fight the Jews! Battle them and you will rise to power!”, while at the same time acknowledging that they are Hashem’s chosen nation, he simply couldn’t help it. He spent his entire lifetime tormenting the Jewish people, and therefore, that became a permanent part of his very soul forever. We see from here that after death, one can no longer improve his behavior. He is trapped with it forever, for better or for worse.
R’ Yisrael Salanter compounds this explanation. He would often comment “going from This World to the Next World is akin to simply taking off a coat”. Meaning, just like when you take off your coat you are exactly the same as before and have simply shed an external shell, so too when we shed our body and go to the World to Come, we will have the same exact character traits that we developed in This World. Sure, there will be a tremendous clarity that will be gained when we go to Heaven. But, at the same time, the character traits that we developed in This World will remain exactly the same FOREVER, albeit greatly magnified. This is why working on our character and the way we deal with others is of paramount importance, as it becomes who we are for all of eternity. (For more on this topic, the reader is strongly encouraged to read “Stop Surviving Start Living” by R’ Shafier)
With this we can answer our original question: R’ Avigdor Miller explains that not being happy with one’s lot is one of the worst character traits imaginable. Why? One reason is because if one does not work to rid himself of this character flaw in This World, he will be stuck with it in the World to Come as well, and will NEVER be happy for all of eternity. There is no graver suffering than this. It is for this reason that Moshe Rabbeinu was so troubled when the Jews complained about the Mun and demanded meat. Their complaints were completely unwarranted, for there was no shortage of meat; The Jewish nation had a HUGE supply of cattle to eat. Rather, it was just a pretext to complain (Rashi 11:4). As the benevolent leader of our nation, Moshe could tolerate run-in-the-mill complaints. Those were to be expected. He could even tolerate large sins, after the nation repented, as they were circumstantial and not likely to be repeated again. However, when the nation complained for no reason whatsoever, a character trait that can easily become a part of one’s long-term character, he was crushed - because he was witnessing his cherished people embark down the path of one of the worst character traits imaginable; one that would sabotage their happiness even in the World to Come (based on lecture #517 “Happy With What He Has” and the book “Perfection in Marriage”, both by R’ Miller. This explanation is in accordance with first explanation in Rashi 11:10).
As illustrated by this week’s parshah, the Midrash with Titus, and the words of R’ Salanter, the character traits and mitzvos that we acquire in This World are our only true possessions and eternal legacy. Furthermore, the Derech Hashem explains that commensurate with the level that we perfect our character in This World to be similar to that of Hashem’s, is the precise level of eternal happiness and contentment that we will attain in the World to Come (which will be the result of the level in which we will be able to connect with Hashem). However, we have a relatively short amount of time to do so. For once we die, we can no longer improve or change ever again. This single piece of information can, and should, motivate a person to dedicate every moment of their lives to fulfilling the mitzvos and perfecting their character as well as possible.
The good news is that opportunities to perfect our character are all around us. Every time we encounter another human being, we have an opportunity to do so. The more we act exactly how Hashem would want us to in every encounter with our family, friends, and neighbors, the greater our eternal character becomes. This affords us nearly limitless opportunities to achieve the priceless growth that we so desperately require. May we all succeed in our lifetime career of perfecting our character in This World, thereby positioning ourselves for optimum happiness in the permanent world, the World to Come.