We live at a time when psychologists and therapists often tell us, as U.S. Representative Maxine Waters has said, “I have a right to my anger, and I don’t want anybody telling me I shouldn’t be, that it’s not nice to be, and that something’s wrong with me because I get angry.” (I Dream a World) In contrast, Moses Maimonides wrote, “Anger is a very bad character trait, and so it is proper for a person to distance himself from it in the extreme, and train himself not to get angry, even regarding something where it is fitting to get angry over that thing.”
All of us get angry. The question is: What do we do with our anger? Do we hold it close and nurture it? Or do we examine what is beneath it, and then let it go?
In parshat Chukkat we encounter Moses’ anger. Maybe Moses thinks he knows the drill? Take your staff (symbol of your authority), assemble the people; strike the rock; water will gush forth. That’s how it went the first time (Exodus 17:5-6). But when Moses repeats that sequence of events now in the wilderness of Tzin, the result is disastrous. Moses is condemned by God to die in the Wilderness and never set foot in the Land of Israel. What went wrong the second time?
This time, God instructs Moses: You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water… (Numbers 20:8). God tells Moses to speak to the rock, not to strike it. But Moses is angry. The taste of Korach’s rebellion is still bitter on his tongue. The people are complaining yet again that they would have been better off had they stayed in Egypt. Standing before the assembled nation,
…[Moses] said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (Numbers 20:10-11)
Several things have gone awry here: First, Moses addresses the entire nation as “rebels.” That wasn’t in the script, but clearly he’s angry. Second and third, he says, “Shall we get water for you…” and strikes the rock not once, but twice. It sure seems that Moses is co-opting or claiming God’s power as his own, rather than publicly affirming God. And, in fact, Torah continues:
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)
What’s the real problem here? Is it Moses’ anger, or his failure to acknowledge God publicly? Pythagoras (582 BC - 507 BC) warned long ago: In anger we should refrain from both speech and action. Moses missed the boat on both counts.
I think it’s both. This is not the first (nor the last time) Moses is angry. When the Israelites build the golden calf (Exodus 32:19) and when Korach and his minions foment a rebellion (Numbers 16:15), Moses is angry. But in those instances, Moses is reacting to intentional evil behavior. Here the people are tired, thirsty, and scared. They need compassion and reassurance, not Moses’ hot wrath.
However “entitled” we are to our anger -- and I certainly believe it is healthy and wise to recognize and acknowledge it -- anger can be toxic and dangerous. It is a self-centered emotion. Moses appears more concerned with his ego needs than the people’s physical and emotional needs. Anger is aimed at self-protection and self-promotion. Moses’ claim that he and Aaron possess the power to bring water from the rock amply demonstrates this aspect of anger. Anger often reflects a sense of superiority coupled with entitlement. The Babylonian Talmud tells us: R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: Every man in whom is haughtiness of spirit is as though he worships idols. (B.Sotah 4b) In this case, Moses is dangerously close to idolatry. When he says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” he suggests to the people that he has the same power as God.
In a fascinating Talmudic discussion the Sages ponder anger, which is highly dangerous, especially when it’s God who is angry. They envision God praying and wonder: What sort of prayer would God pray?
R. Zutra b. Tobi in the name of Rav [tells us that God’s prayer is]: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (B.Berakhot 7a)
God has a self-acknowledged anger management problem and seeks self-control. This is magnificent on so many levels. God is engaged in self-reflection and introspection. God seeks self-improvement. But wait, it gets better. God seeks help!
It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel-Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes.
As the discussion progresses, we learn that God’s daily moment of anger comes early each morning:
At the time when the sun rises and all the kings of the East and West put their crowns upon their heads and bow down to the sun, the Holy One, blessed be God, becomes angry.
The pagan kings pray to the sun. But God learns to cope with this. How? God seeks the help of a human being, the High Priest R. Ishmael b. Elisha. God needs R. Ishmael’s blessing that comes in the form of a prayer R. Ishmael composes for God to recite.
How would this prayer look if we were to say it? Perhaps like this: “May it be Your will to strengthen my resolve to treat others with compassion rather than anger, so that I deal with the people I encounter today and everyday with compassion and patience, rather than anger and impatience.” Not a bad way to start the day, and a pretty good prayer to recite after you have overslept, burned the toast, spilled the orange juice, missed the bus because you couldn’t find your keys, and arrived at work to realize you left something important on the kitchen counter -- and it’s only 8 am. Also a pretty good prayer to say after someone has slighted you, ignored you, blindsided you, or in some other way inflamed your anger.
We all experience anger, and few of us can cultivate the stoic resolve Maimonides counsels, but we have a choice concerning what to do with our anger and how long to hold onto it.
In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom writes, “Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.” Buddha put it far more succinctly: Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned. There’s one to hang on the refrigerator.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman