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Thought for the Day: Complaining is Good for the Soul

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that Yosef's brothers didn't recognize him when the they were came down to Egypt and were being grilled by him?  I mean, yeah... they hadn't seen him in more than 20 years and he was just a teenager and they had sold him as a slave and had no thought that he would have been promoted to viceroy and... ok, ok... maybe it's not a cause for wonder at all.  But let's suppose you did wonder; I now have experienced something similar.

As discussed, I recently attended a wonderful dinner celebrating the 30th anniversary of Congregation Ohev Shalom.  I hadn't seen many people there for more than 20 years, many were adults when I left.  I was actually looking for these people to reconnect.  One such individual walked up to me with a big smile; bigger as he realized that I didn't recognize him.  I finally did recognize him (it was that signature smile); we both laughed about the fact that that last time I had seen him he had been tall, thin, clean shaven, and had red hair... and now... well, he was still tall.  I will never again wonder why Yosef's brothers didn't recognize him.

One of the highlights of the evening for me was when a young man (late 20s, so I hadn't seen him since he was about eight) introduced himself.  We had spent many Shabbos meals with his family and he asked, "Do you know what I most remember?"  Of course I wanted to know.  "I would ask: Can you pass the salt, and you would say, 'Yes, I believe can -- that is, I have the ability -- to pass you the salt.  Would you like me to do so?'"  I told him that he made my night and I hugged him.  It was nice to hear that something so important to me -- namely, precision in language -- made an impression.  It was also interesting to validate my feeling that this a topic about which I have always felt strongly.

Of course you know that I have a similarly consistent reaction to people answering my inquiry into their well being with a simple, "Baruch HaShem"; I generally reply, "I am glad to hear you are still religious, but what was not the question I asked."  I have one more that that elicits a strong reaction/shmuez... It's when people claim, "Oh, I can't complain."

I first became sensitive to this issue while waiting for my doctor in the exam room in that oh so chic dressing gown while he handled an emergency phone call.  Since I had nothing else to do, I picked up my chart to see how I look from the doctor's end.  I was nonplussed when I read, "Patient complains of this.  Patient complains of that. Patient complains of other thing that's really nitpicky."  When he returned, I gave it to him, "I wasn't complaining!  I was just giving you the information you need to diagnose me!"  "Right," said my doctor, "that is the precisely what the word 'complaint' means.  It is simply a statement that a situation is unsatisfactory or unacceptable."

Therefore, when people claim that can't complain (which, of course, then can and do; quite frequently, in fact), I ask them why/when they stopped davening.  "WHAT?!?", they sputter.  (Ok, no one has ever actually sputtered, but I imagine they do in their mind.)  Sure, I continue; after all, Chazal mandated that you should make at least 13 quite strong complaints thrice daily.  To which they reply: those aren't complaints, those are requests.  My rejoinder to that is: Then you are davening wrong.  Chazal designated those 13 middle complaints -- for intelligence/common sense, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, health, livelihood, ingathering from exile, return of our sages and the great court, dissolution of the enemies of Torah Judaism, support for the righteous, rebuilding of Yerushalayim, reestablishment of the monarchy (aka, bring the mashiach), and answering all or our prayers -- precisely because they are critical to our survival, both nationally and individually.  Davening means to express that living without any one of those things is unsatisfactory or unacceptable.

Of course, when I need to complain to the doctor because he will not otherwise know what I need.  We are telling HaShem -- our Father, our King -- that we cannot go on this way; we need all those things to survive and thrive; only HaShem can truly provide each and every one of them.  HaShem already knows what we need; so why are we complaining to Him?  So that we will know that living without any one of those things is unsatisfactory or unacceptable.  Each and every time we daven, we deepen our understanding and feeling of dependency on HaShem; thus deepening and strengthening our relationship with HaShem.

So I complain.  Some things never change.

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