Yaakov Could Complain, Maybe

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19 Dec 2018

A friend once took a poll on Facebook about how people use social media – primarily, whether they share more positivity or negativity. A large number of the responses, as I recall, were along the lines of “There’s enough negativity in the world; I’d rather spread positive thinking and inspiration!”

Not me, I said. My Facebook posts are full of exasperation at my workload, my kids’ sleeping habits (or lack thereof), my stress over dinner preparation or carpool – whatever.

I like to keep it light, but I also like to complain.

Reading last week’s parsha, we might consider Yaakov as a paradigm for honest complaining. Pharaoh asks how old he is, and Yaakov answers, “The days of the years of my sojournings are 130 years, few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my fathers in their sojournings” (Bereishit 47:9).

It’s a weird conversation from the beginning; who greets a brand-new acquaintance by asking their age? And why did Yaakov respond by complaining?

Maybe he was simply responding to a rude question with an answer that would shut Pharaoh up. Maybe he was just telling it like it is.

Several commentaries explain the question by suggesting that Yaakov looked exceptionally old, and his appearance surprised Pharaoh and prompted his question. After all, we might hope that we are too polite to ask strangers about unusual aspects of their appearance – but sometimes it just slips out. How many of us have ever accidentally – just once, because this is a sin you learn from – noticed that a woman looked different and asked if she was pregnant? (Don’t do it!)

Ramban explains the answer in this light too, in fairly neutral terms: Pharaoh asked about Yaakov’s surprising appearance, and Yaakov answered by explaining away his appearance: I’m only 130, which is not really old for my family; I only look decrepit because of all the suffering I’ve experienced!

In Ramban’s view, maybe Yaakov wasn’t really complaining; maybe he was just explaining. It’s a fine line, isn’t it, between a neutral statement of a negative fact and an actual complaint? Not the only time we might wish we could hear the tone behind the words of the pesukim.

According to one midrashic explanation, though, Yaakov was indeed complaining – and he’s held accountable not only for that negativity, but for the baseline negativity that showed up in his appearance and prompted Pharaoh’s question!

As Daat Zekeinim puts it:

Midrash: When Yaakov said, “they were few and bad,” the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I saved you from Esav and from Lavan, and returned both Dina and Yosef to you, and you complain about your life that it’s “few and bad”? I swear that like the number of words from “and he said” until “in the days of their sojournings” – that number will be lacking from your years, that you will not live as long as your father, Yitzchak.” And they are 33 words, and this number is missing from his life, for behold, Yitzchak lived 180 years and Yaakov only lived 147.

One might notice that when the midrash says to count the words from “vayomer” (“and he said”), it doesn’t refer to Yaakov’s response. The only way to arrive at the number 33 is if you start earlier, from when Pharaoh “said.” The midrash holds Yaakov responsible from the moment Pharaoh opened his mouth to ask the question; Yaakov is criticized, even punished, not only for complaining but also for just looking like he had something to complain about!

Uh oh. Do I have to limit my Facebook posts to kitten videos and encouraging soundbites about personal achievement? Start wearing makeup regularly so I don’t look tired and invite sympathetic questions?

Extreme positivity seems like an extremely positive character trait; perhaps that’s why people so often respond to “How are you?” with “Oh, you know, I can’t complain!” It might also be why (based on the anecdotal evidence of my own Facebook poll) the above midrash is taught fairly widely despite not being quoted by Rashi or included in the more commonly studied midrashic compilations (as far as I can find – I was not the only one in my poll who was surprised by that!).

“Don’t complain; be positive!” is an attractive message.

But I wonder.

When someone uses that “I can’t complain” line on me, I tend to respond with something like “Why not? I can!” It’s partly a joke, but I also can’t help thinking complaining gets an unfairly bad rap.

No one wants to talk to someone who’s always complaining, and it’s always important to be sensitive to those who have it worse. I have never been a fan of competitive complaining – “You think your leg hurts? Mine hurts more!” – as if one person’s greater pain suddenly makes someone else feel perfectly fine. But neither do I think it’s nice to complain about leg pain to an amputee. (In a particularly disturbing instance I can’t help sharing, I once overheard a fellow student, getting back on the bus after a visit to a concentration camp – I think it was Auschwitz – call out “I’m staaarving! Does anyone have, like, a granola bar or something?”)

But within reason, there’s a time, a place, and a tone for… most things.

Expressing a little negativity doesn’t have to mean we don’t appreciate the positive – witness Yaakov’s own acknowledgement of G-d’s help surviving Lavan’s house successfully, followed by a request for help in facing Esav, in Bereishit 32, even though he also presumably included those two challenges in describing his “bad” life – and there are actually some positive sides to complaints.

The Netziv, for instance, offers a positive spin on Yaakov’s strange speech to Pharaoh. He suggests Yaakov’s complaint about his “few, bad years” might actually be the flip side of appreciating Hashem’s role in the good. According to the Netziv, Yaakov’s point in telling Pharaoh he’s suffered was specifically to emphasize G-d’s role in whatever good he’s experienced; clearly, no one who’s been through such challenges can be written off as “just lucky”!

While I can’t claim to have this particular noble goal in mind when I share random bits of frustration with life, the Netziv’s interpretation highlights fact that it’s only natural to have both good and bad in our lives – and it’s possible to recognize both.

(Note that while we are indeed told to “bless over the bad just as we bless over the good” – we don’t really. They’re different blessings; we’re not expected to ignore the bad and call it “good.”)

After all – “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have… the facts of life!” (Raise your hand if you recognize the theme song.)

If the facts of life indeed include both good and bad, then the only way to be real about our lives is to acknowledge it all. Not to accept the status quo; we can always look to improve, and I don’t think complaining absolves me of responsibility to do something to improve my own situation. But hey, what better way to improve than to share my challenges and get help, advice, or simply the commiseration that provides strength to get through things on my own?

Along those lines – putting a positive spin on everything makes it extremely difficult to really get to know anyone and build relationships. After all, what happens when we respond to a greeting with a benign “Oh, you know, can’t complain!” It’s not really an answer (granted, sometimes people don’t really want an answer), and takes the conversation nowhere. I had a teacher once who would come back to responses of “baruch Hashem!” with “I didn’t ask how frum you are; I asked how you’re doing!”

I saw a fascinating article several months ago entitled, “How to Make Friends, According to Science.” The article basically consisted of soundbites culled from various studies, including the following tip:

And if all else fails, you could start randomly confiding in people you don’t know that well … Self-disclosure makes us more likable, and as a bonus, we are more inclined to like those to whom we have bared our soul.

Validation! Complaining at random – such as on Facebook, to people I do or don’t know that well – helps build a sense of connection and create friendships.

I’ve seen this happen, actually. I once posted on Facebook that I had managed to burn a pot of quinoa and didn’t have any more in the house. It was a silly, benign complaint, just a moment of frustration. When I later went to the supermarket, I ran into three acquaintances who each smiled and said “Buying more quinoa?” Suddenly, because I said a random thing, we had this little moment of connection, which could even lead to conversation and a deeper friendship.

I’m not entirely serious; again, the complaints I’m talking about are mostly in fun – usually good-natured, cathartic venting. And again, complaining can be taken too far. But so can anything – including not complaining.

Was Pharaoh the person to whom Yaakov should have aired his frustrations with the course of his life? Maybe not. (He would have been an unlikely choice as prospective friend.)

Should Yaakov, with his connection to Hashem, have been able to place his suffering in positive perspective, at least enough to not wear his negativity so blatantly on his sleeve? Maybe.

But you know, he did have a lot of challenges in life, and they probably did put on a few gray hairs.

My challenges, thank G-d, are nothing like his – and I like to think my gray hairs are held at bay (somewhat) by the catharsis, and sometimes humor (in my own mind, at least) of sharing some of the little and less little daily challenges we all face.

And I even came across Mishnaic support for wearing some of our emotions on our sleeves – even with the specific intent of inviting questions about our troubles.

Middot 2:2 describes the proper way to enter, circle, and exit the Temple Mount – but says “one to whom something [bad] happened” would go the other way. Why? Apparently, so people would notice something odd and ask (yes, like at the Pesach seder, but it was probably not children who were asking) – and they could then express the appropriate sentiment for the occasion.

Sounds to me like a subtle way to invite notice of one’s troubles; basically, a way to complain within reason and to good purpose.

The cases in the Mishna are about some pretty serious things: mourning (the other person could then offer condolences) or having been excommunicated either unfairly (offer prayers that those at fault would come around) or fairly (offer prayers for assistance with teshuva). But I like to think the Mishna can still offer a conceptual model for letting people know, whether explicitly or by simple nonverbal cues, when we have troubles of any size – with reasonably subtlety and sensitivity – because sharing negativity can have positive outcomes.

Complaining, within reason, can remind everybody that no life is perfect, despite what one’s Facebook newsfeed might imply; it can invite prayers or practical assistance; and it can help to build relationships.

(It can also be fun.)

And then we can express our gratitude to Hashem for helping us through it all.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.