Is Frustration Real?
In our neighborhood, there is a message board called, Nextdoor. People post on all kinds of subjects there, from free fruit for the taking, to which political candidates one should vote for in the next election, to voices of concern for potential criminal activity lurking around the corner. But mostly people post messages as an expression of frustration for their "neighbors," where anonymity offers freedom for the most salacious expressions. Yes, there are people who park in two car spaces, people who leave more trash out than they should, and some completely disrespectful human beings who allows the dead leaves from their tree to fall into their neighbor's pool. Rather than taking action and trying to resolve the frustration, some find the logical conclusion to publicly broadcast their complaints to the world, maybe even to solicit sympathy from anyone who will respond. Left unchecked, frustrations can breed resentment and even dissolve trust between good neighbors.
By definition, frustration is a perceived resistance to achieving a goal. Sometimes we become a little dramatic when such resistance seems insurmountable. Maybe...perhaps...the obstacles are real. Certainly the experience of resistance appears real enough to do something about it. Of course, willful public shaming is never the right course of action. But, what should we do when frustration appears very real without responding in a way that holds others captive to our complaints? The Torah takes this up with some great questions we read while the Israelites wander toward the Promised Land.
One of the purposes of the journey through the wilderness is the attempt to confront the resistance implicit in sacred duty. Doing something for another with no control over the outcome can be frustrating indeed. Complaints, even outright disobedience, become the subject matter of this foundational text of identity and purpose. We may wonder how a people so mired in conflict were even worthy of Divine instruction as we pore over the verses in this book. The people's concerns for physical sustenance are likely manifestations of a deeper conflict of faith and loyalty to Divine command.
The drama of the Israelites is no more poignant than the episode of complaint found in this rapid-succession of questions. The people are complaining for the food they don’t have, God is angry at the narrow-minded human beings who cannot think beyond their next meal, and Moshe is upset at his inability to change the people’s behavior, whether by the teachings he received on Sinai, or by his well-tested leadership experience.
Moshe asks, “Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all these people upon me?” The litany of these questions reveals the anxiety and urgency of his concern. His exhaustion in this moment of leadership is not unfamiliar to those who accept the mantle of responsibility. We don’t ask multiple questions in succession when we’re calm.
We cannot underestimate the anxiety of the people here. Rather than dismissing their concerns as a sign of petulance uttered by redeemed slaves lingering with the residue of their oppression, the concern prompts us to entertain the seriousness of their cries. How can anyone enter sacred service when one’s basic needs are not met?
We cannot disregard Moshe’s frustration either. More than the length of experience we have shared with his leadership of the people from Egypt to the Promised Land, we imagine that he has tried every leadership trick in the book up to this point. Facing yet another example of failure, he also breaks down in his impatience, a recurring theme for him throughout the book.
Finally, we imagine God’s frustration. That God has spoken or God’s anger is felt in some palpable fashion implies a certain openness for us to hear it. On the one hand we are reminded that frustration isn't real, after all. On the other hand, how we choose to respond to the resistance is very real. Herein may be the insight to the episode. More than the drama of the people’s complaints, the capacity to hear God’s voice even amidst the frustration is a model worth emulating. Conflict is unavoidable. But, hearing the other through the conflict can be the foundation of sacred connections.
If only the people would listen!