By Rev. J.C. Austin
Our Jewish neighbors have just entered their High Holy Days which began with Rosh Hashanah, the “New Year’s Day” of the Jewish calendar, at sundown last Friday. Religiously, it is first and foremost the beginning of a period of self-examination and repentance for Jewish people. The famous blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, is not simply a noisemaker, but a call for Jewish people to “awake from slumber” by examining their ways and identifying where they need to repent and atone for their actions. But it is also a celebration, as pretty much any New Year’s Day is in any tradition. That’s why one of the traditional foods served is apples dipped in honey; this symbolizes the hope for a sweet new year.
As I have watched Jewish friends and colleagues prepare this year, I must confess to a bit of what is often called “holy envy” in multifaith circles. This is when you identify something in another tradition that is not part of your own, but which you wish was. And I must say, this year I am particularly envious of Rosh Hashanah, of Jewish people celebrating the previous year coming to an end and being relegated to history, while turning in hope for sweetness to embrace a new year, because this year has been truly one of the worst in living memory here in the United States.
Now, I’m not being naïve; obviously, much of what has been so bad about the last twelve months is continuing without a pause through Rosh Hashanah. In fact, the US has almost (and may have already) crossed the horrifying threshold of 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, and while the average death rate has finally dropped under 1000 people a day this week, it continues at a robust pace. And while the virus is easily the biggest and most awful part of what has been bad about the past six months, it is still only part of a much greater and more terrible whole. So while the dawn of a new year doesn’t change that, it does provide a marker of resilience for our Jewish neighbors that I envy: regardless of 2020 dragging on, Year 5780 has ended, and we sure hope there will be more sweetness in Year 5781.
Perhaps that’s why I’m more sympathetic than ever to the Israelites in this story from Exodus today, which begins by saying, “the whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” The Israelites are in the wilderness in the first place because of their dramatic flight from the Egyptians who had enslaved them, culminating in their miraculous deliverance from the pursuing Egyptian army when God parted the Red Sea for them to escape into the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula.
This story is about two months later, as the Israelites have been journeying through that wilderness. And it is a real wilderness, a desert in every sense of the word: dry and barren, with little to no water or food for the Israelites as they journey day after day without relief. Readers of this story are often encouraged to judge the Israelites for complaining in the wilderness, but personally, I’ve always felt like they had a pretty strong case for that, and this year I feel that more than ever. Isn’t it fair to complain when they find themselves, in their first months of “freedom,” wandering in a wilderness that is “free” of food and water and shelter and stability and direction and anything resembling normal life, with no indication of when any of that might change?
The reality is that all of those things have at least some rough analogies to what 2020 (or Year 5780) has had for us. Some of us have struggled with things as basic as food and water and shelter in the dual crises of the quarantine experience and the economic recession. All of us have struggled with the lack of stability and anything resembling normal life, with no real indication of when any of that might meaningfully change. Is it wrong to be complaining about that?
I think it depends on what we mean by complaining. Complaining gets a bad rap; we are often told to quit complaining and do something, that complaining never solves anything. But those kind of admonitions are far too simplistic; all complaining is not equal. Yes, complaining can be a way of dwelling passively on what’s wrong, even to the point of having your perspective defined by negativity. But it can also be an important way of identifying and processing what’s wrong so we do not simply accept it and instead find ways to try and change it. The difference really depends on what (or who) we are complaining about, how we are complaining about it, and what we want done about the complaint.
Most of the important change in the world has been rooted in a profoundly important complaint: that slavery is evil and needs to be ended, for example; or that human beings should be treated equally and our culture and systems often don’t do that, so they need to be transformed; or that political sovereignty and power should rest finally with the people rather than an individual, and so absolute monarchies or authoritarian regimes need to be dismantled in favor of democracy; and so on. Another form of complaint is what I would call venting or lamenting; processing the emotional cost of injustice or betrayal or neglect.
As I’ve said before, contrary to what some believe, prayers of lament are some of the most validated by God in the Bible, and are therefore some of the most faithful ways we can respond in such circumstances. Lamenting something means we recognize that something important is very wrong, that it shouldn’t be this way, and that we should not simply accept it and that God should do something about it if it goes against God’s will or promises. This is how I would describe what the Israelites are doing in the wilderness in our story today; they are venting their frustration and pain and fear about going through all of the challenges of the exodus from Egypt only to seemingly be abandoned to starvation in the desert by God. That’s a very just complaint.
There are some problems in how they do it, though. First, they blame Moses and Aaron, saying they wished that God had simply killed them quickly while they were still in Egypt rather than letting these two bozos drag them all the way out into the wilderness to die slowly of starvation. Second, in doing so, they admit they have given up: given up trust that God would deliver on getting them safely to the Promised Land; given up hope for any kind of future. So their complaint drifts from justified to a third form of complaint: what I will call wallowing.
This is the kind of complaint we do want to avoid, where the complaint goes from a valid point to a way of life: when you get so invested in the justice of your complaint that your vision becomes defined by negativity and everything else gets blocked out; all you can do is wallow in it, as if you sat down into a cold puddle of mud that oozes all around you and finally turns solid in the winter air, trapping you because you stayed in it so long.
Which is why God has to intervene so dramatically with the twin miracles of the quails appearing in the evening and the bread in the morning: God has to break them out. Not out of their complaining; there’s nothing here that suggests God has a problem with their complaints. In fact, it says specifically that God has heard their complaints and is responding to them positively by providing the quail and the bread. And what’s important about that is not simply that they won’t starve now, which is obviously pretty important; it’s that God doesn’t give them what they wanted.
Remember? They didn’t actually ask for food. They complained about not having any, but that’s not what they wanted. What they wanted was to be back in Egypt, sitting by the fleshpots (pots of stewed meat, in other words) and eating their fill of bread. But even that was just circumstances; what they actually said they wanted was to have been able to die in better circumstances, for God to have killed them by God’s own hand while they had full bellies in Egypt. Which means they wanted to have died still enslaved in a foreign land. That was the limit of their imagination, of their desire: dying as slaves in the land of their captors, but at least they wouldn’t be hungry.
God clearly is not going to fulfill that desire; that’s not who God is or what God is up to. But God is also not going to just wave a magic wand and give them…I don’t know, portable infinite Egyptian fleshpots, so they know that have all the food they want for the rest of their lives. Instead, God decides they need to start living day to day. We tend to hear that expression negatively. If you ask someone how things are with their business or their family or their health, and their response is, “we’re living day to day right now,” that means you don’t know how or even if you’re going to be living the next day, that you have no capacity to plan or provide for the future, all you know is whether you can get through this day. And that is a very, very hard way to live, when you don’t know if you have food or shelter beyond the day you’re in, and maybe you aren’t that sure about that.
But that’s not who God is or what God is up to, either: making the Israelites live day to day in anxiety about whether they will be able to eat the next day. Which is why God tells them up front that God will provide as much meat and bread as each person needs for that day, every day, but no more than that. What God means by living day to day is living in the reminder and assurance of God’s abundant love and grace every single day, that God will provide and we will receive enough of what we need for this day: hoping for it, looking for it, finding and celebrating it.
It means not having to look back to what we used to have with nostalgia, recalling what we had but forgetting what had us. It means not having to plan out everything for the future, as if our getting there depends solely on our preparations. It means not having to give up on that future, on tomorrow. It means that when we find ourselves wandering in the desert, hungry and anxious and exhausted, it is enough to have enough to simply live in the moment of each day, day in and day out; not because the moment is all we have, but because life itself happens in the daily moments, not in our grand plans and certainly not in our selective memories.
That is the promise of the bread of heaven that God provides in the wilderness, the daily bread Jesus taught us to pray for each day. Some of the days will be bigger and more meaningful than others; some will be calmer than others, some will be harder than others. But in all of them, God’s love and grace are constant and sure. And we don’t need to hoard it or ration it for the future, and we couldn’t if we tried, because God’s love and grace are already more than enough of what we need for whatever that day brings.
Which is more important than ever for us to remember these days, as we so often awaken wondering what bad news awaits us on this day, and go to sleep thinking about how many more of these days lie behind us than we would have ever imagined, and wondering how many more of these days lie before us. So this story is a reminder and an invitation to live, really live, day to day: to accept that it will be enough to live faithfully and fully in this day, and that God’s