The Israelites are in their 6th week of 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness after being liberated from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 16-17 begins a Wilderness cycle of crisis-grumbling-providence-gratitude. It begins with complaint. They ran out of food and complained bitterly,
How long do you think it’ll be, Moses, before we get to this terrific place you keep talking about? If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt where we ate our fill of bread; you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us with hunger. We were better off in Egypt. We were oppressed, but we weren’t hungry. You said…you said we were going to the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, but here we are in the wilderness. We’re going to starve and we’re going to die of thirst following you, following God. You brought us out here to die. Take us back!
Have you ever reflected on what you complain about or how often you complain and who you complain to? What does complaining and grumbling get you? Sometimes it’s fun to complain and grumble. Do you remember Glum from Gulliver’s Travels, and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. They have one thing in common – they are lovable complainers. The cartoon series, Gulliver’s Travels was popular when I was a kid. Glum was the most negative, pessimistic character. No matter the situation, Glum would find the dark cloud encircled by the silver lining. When met with a challenge, he’d say, “It’s hopeless. We’ll never make it.” And then there’s Eyeore’s favorite phase – “O, Bother!” He has a life motto that no matter what happened, it would go wrong and he could count on it. Eeyore lives his life with his head down because that is what he expects out of life. “Today might be crappy, but tomorrow will be worse.”
I don’t know if the Israelites were quite as lovable as Glum or Eyeore. In fact, Ex32, God will call them a stiff-necked people, but the Israelites were in the beginning stages of learning how to be God’s people and how to trust Moses as their leader, and through Moses, learn to trust God. One way to see Complaint is to recognize that, rather than turning away from God, grumbling can be a way of turning to God, trusting that God does not ignore, dismiss or punish those who call out in fear, anger, suffering or need. In v.9 Moses instructs Aaron to say to the Israelites:
“Draw near to God, for God has heard your complaint.” As the people “Looked toward the wilderness…the glory of the LORD appeared in a cloud.”
Sometimes we, too, need to look deeper into the wilderness to behold God’s presence. It’s not always going to be on the mountaintop – like it was for Moses. The wilderness can be a place of danger. It is also a space for learning new ways and spiritual rhythms. The wilderness is the place where the Israelites come to know the God who hears their complaint; the God who recognizes their need for sustenance and a life beyond scarcity. God is present and listens to a hungry, thirsty, anxious people, in unfamiliar territory, without knowing what their future will be.
If not taken to its extreme, grumbling and complaining and murmuring can be seen as a form of prayer – a way of bringing our most authentic realities and selves before God. We might recognize our own lives somewhere in the cycle the Israelites experienced: a particular moment of crisis followed by grumbling & complaining; then sensing God’s provision and sustenance followed by gratitude. It would be nice to live in a state of gratitude and zen ALL the time for God’s providence and sustenance in our lives, but you might be more like Glum or Eeyore. AND the reality is that we are human in the middle of a pandemic in the wilderness of a volatile political climate without knowing how long it will be till we get to the other side. What we do know is that the world isn’t fully what we desire or what God desires.
If you look closely at the Book of Psalms, you will notice that they follow a cycle of lament and praise as well. The Psalmist is in a pit of despair, and then there is a turning, a yearning for God, followed by an exuberant chorus of praise. The laments in the Book of Psalms give voice to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear, and danger. They call upon God to see and to act. In Exodus 16 & 17, the Israelites are navigating a barren wilderness. They are united by their particular crisis of insecurity & anxiety, hunger & thirst and complain to God. Rather than wipe the complainers out, God responds with God’s provision by sending quail for meat, manna for bread, water from a rock; and most of all God’s presence in the pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night. They respond with gratitude. It’s a recurring cycle not only for the Israelites, but also our spiritual lives as well. Life happens, we forget, we grumble and complain. God responds again and again.
In Egypt, their lives benefitted Pharaoh. In the wilderness, their lives are reordered. Their loyalty is redirected from Pharaoh to Yahweh. Their service no longer benefits Pharaoh but goes towards building a community of integrity, care and compassion for all.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, grew up in this faith that was shaped by these ancient Israelites who found a way to be God’s people through wandering in the desert for 40 years. Instead of complaining, she instead found a legal route to use her voice for justice, using 2 words, “I dissent.” In a children’s book by that name, she proved that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable! Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent a lifetime disagreeing: disagreeing with inequality, arguing against unfair treatment, and standing up for what’s right for people everywhere.
In a world where gender equality was lacking and women are expected to comply,
she said “I dissent.”
In a world where love was kept in a box with rules,
she said “I dissent.”
In a world where borders are drawn tighter and walls are built higher,
she said “I dissent.”
In a world where fiction is told as truth and facts are twisted into lies,
she said “I dissent.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday evening, around the time of Shabbat, as the Jewish Sabbath began. It was also the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the Days of Awe, a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Jewish New Year, when the Book of Life is said to be opened and names inscribed. It is said that a person dies on Shabat, they are considered a Tzadik, a good and righteous person. I found an article on Chris Berry’s FB page by Molly Conway, a Jewish woman. She writes:
If someone dies on Rosh Hashona they are considered even more of a Tzedek. Tzedakah is not a benevolent contribution given to be nice to those who need it, it is to be viewed as a balancing of the scales, actively working towards justice. An example: one should donate to the local food bank not to gain favor with God, or to be nice to those with less than ourselves, but because it is unjust for anyone to be without food, especially while others have plenty. (In Exodus 16 – everyone secured what they needed to eat, enough, no more, no less.) Correcting injustice, balancing the scales, evaluating the distribution of power and creating equity is tzedakah, the work of righteousness.
To say Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a tzaddek is to say that she was a thoughtful person who worked tirelessly to create a more just world. One that would perpetuate equality and access, one that was better for people she did not know, without expectation of praise or fame. It’s about the Pursuit of justice.
Our Jewish friends are saying: May her memory be for blessing. May her memory be for revolution. Like the Israelites, we are in a moment of crisis. People are hungry, people are dying in the wilderness of this pandemic, we are in political crisis. We can use our voices to complain and grumble as a way of coming to God in prayer, and we can continue the legacy of RBG to turn this moment, this crisis, into a movement, with our dissent, trusting that God is with us and God will hear our cries. We can, like Ruth, dissent until the very breath leaves our bodies as we pursue justice, righteousness, and sustainability for all to have enough.
The last verse of the hymn Let My People seek their freedom are these words:
In the maelstrom of the nations, in the journeying into space,
in the clash of generations, in the hungering for grace,
in the agony and glory, we are called to newer ways
by the Lord of our tomorrows and the God of earth’s todays.
God poured manna from the heavens, and water come from an unlikely place: a rock. The people who wandered in the desert survived their experience. They survived their journey through inhospitable terrain. They found sustenance in the most unlikely places. In the cycle of life as God’s people, complain and grumble and dissent, but keeping moving through the cycle to discover God’s sustenance and provision for your life leading you to a heart of gratitude. Amen.