“The people were like those who seek complaints in the ears of HaShem, and HaShem heard and His wrath flared…”
As the Jewish people were on the verge of entering Eretz Yisroel, they began complaining to HaShem. It is not immediately apparent what exactly they were complaining about. Rashi, based on the Sifri, explains that, in truth, they had no specific complaint, rather they were seeking a pretext to justify distancing themselves from HaShem. In a similar vein, the Seforno writes that they had no valid reason to complain, but they made it appear as if they were complaining about the difficulty of the journey. These explanations help answer the question of why the Torah writes that they were “like” complainers, as opposed to being actual complainers. It is possible to answer that the Torah is alluding that they were not really complaining about anything. Therefore they were not genuine complainers who had a real grievance, rather they were like complainers in that they made out as if they had a gripe.
We learn from the Sifri that there are occasions when a person can voice a complaint or make an argument, when in truth, he doesn’t really believe in what he is saying. Rather he is using it as an excuse to justify an undesirable form of behavior. In the case of the misonenim, this undesirable behavior manifested itself in the people’s desire to distance themselves from HaShem.
We see a further striking example of how, what a person says does not necessarily represent what he means, in the argument between Kayin and Hevel that culminated in the murder of Hevel. The Torah tells us that Kayin spoke with Hevel before he killed him. “And Kayin spoke to Hevel his brother, and whilst they were in the field, Kayin rose up against his brother, Hevel, and killed him.” The Torah does not tell us what Kayin spoke about with Hevel. Targum Yonasan tells us that Kayin spoke words of kefira (denial of G-d) to Hevel, arguing that there was no G-d, and no concept of reward and punishment. Hevel argued with Kayin and in the midst of their argument, Kayin rose up and killed Hevel. Rav Yissochor Frand Shlita, asks why the Torah refrained from presenting this seemingly fundamental philosophical debate, leaving it to Chazal to fill in the details. He answers that the Torah was teaching us that Kayin didn’t necessarily believe in what he was saying, rather he was looking for an excuse to initiate an argument with his brother. The Torah refrained from revealing Kayin’s words because their actual content was irrelevant. We see again from here that a person’s most passionate arguments may be a screen to hide his true intentions.
In this vein, the story is told of a number of yeshiva bachurim in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, who left the yeshiva and ultimately left Torah observance. Years later, they approached their Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt”l, and told him that they had kashas on fundamental aspects of Torah thought, that they wanted to pose to him.
Before they could ask their questions, he rhetorically asked them what came first – did they have kashas that caused them to leave Yiddishkeit, or did they leave Yiddishkeit and then come up with the kashas. His point was that they didn’t leave observance because of deep philosophical questions. Rather, they left Torah and then came up with the kashas so as to give their abhorrent behavior a veil of validity.
This phenomenon remains common nowadays. Rav Dovid Orlofsky Shlita tells of a Mashgiach of a Yeshiva who approached him with regard to a yeshiva bachur who claimed to have doubts in Emuna, and as a result, was beginning to get involved in objectionable activities. The Mashgiach told Rav Orlofsky that he had spent much time with the boy discussing Jewish thought, studying the philosophical works of great Jewish thinkers such as the Rambam and Rav Yehuda HaLevi . Yet nothing had helped, and he continued on his path away from Torah. Rav Orlofsky explained that it was clear that bachur had no genuine issues in Emuna, rather he enjoyed going to town more than learning in the Beis Medrash! All the Mashgiach’s philosophical arguments met deaf ears, because they meant nothing to the boy. It was more instructive to address the real issues that were causing his descent from Yiddishkeit.
How can a person develop the skill of discerning when a person is saying one thing but doesn’t really mean what he is saying? The incident of the misonenim also helps answer this. After the people began complaining, ostensibly about the difficult journey, the Torah tells us that, “HaShem heard (vayishma) and His wrath flared…” What does the Torah come to teach us by telling us the seemingly obvious fact that HaShem ‘heard’? The verb, ‘lishmoa’ does not merely mean to hear, rather it also can mean, ‘to understand’. Therefore, the Torah is telling us that HaShem understood the true intents of the people – that they had no real complaint, rather they were looking to distance themselves from Him. He reacted accordingly.
Or course, we are not able to understand a person’s thoughts. However we can strive to emulate HaShem by discerning what he really means when he says something, and consequently come to a more accurate understanding of what he really means. For example, a person may ask, why there is so much suffering in the world. There are numerous possible reasons as to why a person may ask such a question; he may have experienced a tragedy and be grappling with it; he may have a genuine desire to understand this difficult issue; or he may be simply using this issue as an excuse to attack Judaism. The only way to discern his true intent is to probe further as to what exactly he means – in this way, one can address his real issue. Similarly, a child may complain that he does not enjoy school. A parent could take this complaint at face value and try to help him enjoy learning more. However, if the parent probes further, he may discover that in truth the child has no problem with his studies, rather there is a different problem, for example, another boy may be bullying him and therefore he doesn’t want to go to school. With this understanding, the parent can now address the problem in a far more effective way.
The lessons of the episode of the misonenim are as relevant today as they were in the desert. May we all merit to emulate HaShem and learn to understand the true meaning of people’s words.