Parshas Shmos - ‘Why Oh Why?’- The Art of Complaining

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 12/30/15

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
Dr. Shapsy Tajerstein, DPM - Podiatry Care.
(410) 788-6633

The story is told about a husband who brought his wife to a hospital in Israel to deliver her ninth child. All their previous children were daughters. When the doctor came out of the delivery room he sheepishly wished the father, once again, mazal tov on the birth of a girl. The disappointed father starts to scream and rage, shouting to the doctor how it simply can’t be. The doctor retreats quickly back to the new mother and child and discovers that he had erred and indeed they are the proud parents of a little boy. He rushes back to the father telling him the good news. After hearing the good tiding the relieved and happy father turns to the fellow next to him and declares, “You see in this country if you complain long enough you get results!”

Inevitably throughout our lives we will all face frustrating situations. We will sometimes feel as if life is unfair and too difficult to tackle, often instinctively blurting out, “Why oh why!?”

Does complaining really work? Is one even permitted to kvetch?

Moshe had revealed to the people the encouraging news of the approaching exodus as promised by G-d. He had also confronted Pharaoh challenging him to let the people leave for a three-day journey to the wilderness to bring offerings to G-d, threatening him with plague or death if he refuses. Pharaoh rejects outright their request and goes on to increase the already impossible workload.

The Midrash reports that from the moment Pharaoh decreed that the Jews will no longer be provided straw for the brick making and will need to provide their own straw, Moshe returned to Midyan to bring his wife and children there.

Several months go by and Moshe finally returns. He encounters the Jewish foremen who immediately accuse him and Aharon of having caused, through their earlier intervention, to instigate the Egyptians to abhor them even more and ultimately attempt to destroy them.

Moshe is flabbergasted. After all this time, despite G-d’s promise to him to free the nation, there has not only been any improvement but the situation has worsened.

Moshe returns to G-d and utters the famous words,למה הרעתה לעם הזה למה זה שלחתני (שמות ה כב) , “Why have You done evil to this people, why have you sent me?”

But G-d doesn’t respond to the questions. Giving no explanation to Moshe to resolve his painful query, G-d merely replies, “Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh...”

So indeed, complaining seems to work! Is that all it takes? What is really going on here?

This double 'לָמָה', the ‘Why oh why’ approach, is implemented in two other places by Moshe, with seemingly similar successful results.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d indicts the people for their grievous sin and threatens to annihilate them.


Moshe pleads to G-d, למה ד' יחרה אפך בעמך... למה יאמרו מצרים לאמר ברעה הוציאם ממצרים להרוג אותם   (שם לב יא-יב), Why, G-d, should Your anger flare up against your people... Why should Egypt say the following: ‘With evil intent did He take them out to kill them...

Once again with no attempt is to justify His actions, the Torah merely reports that G-d reconsiders His decree and rescinds it.

You see, if you complain long enough you get results!

Finally during the second year of their forty year sojourn in the desert, the nation, despite their having miraculously sustained themselves on the delicious Manna, complains about their lack of meat.

In despair Moshe expresses his frustration and complains למה הרעת לעבדך ולמה לא מצתי חן בעיניך לשום משא העם הזה עלי (במדבר יא יא), Why have You done evil to your servant; why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you place the burden of this entire people upon me?

Here too, G-d makes no effort to explain His ways but simply instructs Moshe to enlist the aid of the seventy elders who will assist him in dealing with difficult task of carrying the burden of the people.

Complaining clearly works!

What are we to make of this pattern of the double ‘why’ that always seem to do the trick?

The word לָמָה, that we use to express ‘why’ has dual connotations. It can simply be an earnest query, inquiring to know the purpose of any given action. Alternately, it could serve as an expression of bewilderment, surprise and frustration, where the why is suspended, not really expecting or requiring an answer, merely an uttering of distress.

To simply instinctively react when confronted with difficulty with a ‘why’ of despair and frustration is treif, not kosher. Everything has a purpose, a rhyme and a reason, though we don’t always see it with clarity. As long as we first affirm that we genuinely pine for understanding in our relationship with G-d and truly desire to fathom the purpose of all that we face, we are permitted to kvetch, and share with our Father our personal state of pained confusion.

There is a tradition of taamim, cantillation marks, that guide us in how to pronounce and accent each hebrew word properly. There are times when tradition places the accent beneath the ל of לָ֥מָּה, and at times it appears under the מ, לָמָ֤ה. When the emphasis is at the onset of the word it reflects an impulsive utterance which indicates frustration more than it does an honest question. When the stress is on the second letter in the word לָמָ֤ה, it implies the notion of the two sentiments inherent within this word, לְ-מַה, and meaning: ‘to what’, stressing a sincere and contemplative probe for understanding and purpose.

In each of these three instances where Moshe complained, ‘why? why?’, the first why finds the accent on the מ and the second on the ל. He first asserted his sole goal for understanding the predicament and its purpose, and then first shares his personal despair that stems from this frustrated lack of clarity.

When we put our ‘complaint’ in that context, G-d delivers results.

Man’s first expression of ‘Why’ in the Torah appears in the episode where Avram is forced to conceal his relationship as the husband of Sarai when they descend into the ‘jungle’ of Egypt to escape the famine. He fears that were Pharaoh to know his true identity he would first slay him before taking his wife, Sarai. So Avram presents himself as her brother. Pharaoh’s henchmen proceed to fetch Sarai for their master. G-d afflicts Pharaoh and his entire household with a plague of skin disease that prevents him from cohabitation. Pharaoh realizing that something is amiss, summons Avram and says, “Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?, Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’, so that I would take her as my wife?”

In this verse למה also appears twice, but in this instance the first one’s emphasis is at the beginning of the word and the second on its second letter.

In the realm of the beastly Pharaoh impulse is primary and the pursuit for knowledge secondary, if necessary at all. He first blurts out his angry frustration because all he truly cares about is the disturbing of his lecherous plans. He then goes on to feign ‘decency’ by inquiring as to the motivation of Avram in keeping that information from him.

When the Pharaoh of our story is troubled by Moshe’s request for the Jewish nation to break from their work in order to bring offerings to G-d, he once again blurts out, "לָ֚מָּה משה ואהרן תפריעו", “why are you, Moshe and Aharon, disturbing the people from their work?”

Once again the inflection appears here at the beginning of the word, since Pharaoh has no interest in really understanding, but only the need to react like the disturbed creature he is.

So go ahead and complain! G-d wants us to share our every pain and frustration with Him. But there is one caveat. It must stem from a deep yearning to discover his plan for us so that we may rise to the challenges we face knowing that He seeks closeness with us. We may then share the pain of our plight and G-d will respond, because He knows that it stems from our earnest desire to become close, not simply because we are seeking an easy way out.

My daughter, Mrs. Dassy Freidlander, shared recently with me a remarkable original insight.

Whenever we ask G-d לָמָה, why, we should always remember that the letters in this fascinating word ל-מ-ה, stand for the sentiment: לא מבינים הכל, we can’t understand everything!

If we start with that premise and strive to comprehend, to the best of our ability, G-d’s loving providence, when we reach the point of frustration, we must share that with Him and hopefully in the merit of our honestly seeking to be near Him, G-d will bring about our salvation.


צבי טייכמאן