Saturday, February 23, 2013

The divine anger-meter / Ki Tissa

How many us who are blessed with children have turned to our partner in a moment of anger or annoyance and said, “Your son…” or “Your daughter…” If we haven’t said it, surely we’ve heard it. Why say “your” rather than “our”?

God, the “cosmic parent,” does this and more. The Lord spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely…” (Exodus 32:7-8). The Israelites have built the Gold Calf, so suddenly the Israelites are Moses’ people, and it is Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt? Not long before it was, And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians (Exodus 6:7).

Why does God now say that it is Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. Perhaps God now regrets that move and wants to disassociate from it. This is another instance among many in Torah of God going from zero to sixty in a millisecond on the Anger-meter in response to something the Israelites do, and what is more, this bout of anger is followed by the threat of utter annihilation.

Israel, in worshiping the Golden Calf, has seemingly rejected God. At least that’s how God sees it. In return, is God to some small degree rejecting them? Is the underlying psychological purpose to distance oneself from the offending child, Israel? Or is it to distance oneself out of anger and resentment, in which case it is punitive in nature?

Perhaps you have observed, as I did when my children were very young, that when I displayed anger, my children were fixated on my emotions rather than their own behavior, and that eclipsed any possibility of holding a productive conversation.

If you peruse a book or website on parenting, you will find this advice: Anger is a biological reaction generated in our amygdala. In the case of children who provoke our anger, we often feel the need to get them under control, but a more appropriate response is to sidestep the amygdala’s input as much as possible, and get ourselves under control first. After all, when our children are fraught with anger, we first help them regain self-control so they can face what caused the anger rationally.  But the whole problem with anger is that we are out of control to some degree, so how are we supposed to do that?

The Rabbis discuss the issue of God’s temper and the danger inherent in God’s anger in b.Berakhot 7. There God visits the High Priest, R. Yishmael b. Elisha, in the Holy of Holies and asks him for help. R. Yishmael gives God a blessing and a prayer to recite in order to get control of his anger.  What’s curious and perhaps even shocking here is that R. Yishmael plays the role of parent, and God (the cosmic parent) plays the role of the child.

A similar role reversal happens in the incident of the Golden Calf in this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa.
The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
I hear in God’s insertion of “let Me be” a subtle or perhaps masked plea to Moses to, in fact, do the opposite: Don’t let me be. Don’t leave me alone. Don’t let me continue on this path of destruction. Torah continues:
But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. (Exodus 32:11)
Moses has turned God’s words around: they are Your people whom You brought out of Egypt. That is to say: You have a deep and abiding commitment to them, God. Do not distance yourself. Come back.

Moses continues:
Let not the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus 32:12)
Here Moses helps God step back from the divine anger that shrinks God’s view, and take a broader view. What will others think? What will they say? How will God look? And finally, having calmed God down and helped God to think rationally, Moses delivers his final and culminating pièce de résistance — and it does indeed prove irresistible to God:
Turn from Your blazing anger [Moses tells God] and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” (Exodus 32:12-13)
Moses brings God back into emotional proximity with the Israelites and helps God regain a sense of balance. God is now cool, calm and collected.
And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people. (Exodus 32:14)
Moses, like R. Yishmael b. Elisha has taken on the role of the parent calming down the furious child. Here, too, in parshat Ki Tissa, we find a kind of role reversal.

What is the message here for us? Certainly Moses is a role model for us in his ability to help God overcome intense fury and destructive intention. But God, too, is a role model for seeking and accepting help. God doesn’t need to consult Moses. God could wipe out the Israelites with the smite button on his keyboard without ever speaking to Moses. But here, as in the story recounted in b.Berakhot 7, God seeks help and allows another to rescue him from his own inclinations. Can we do the same? Can we do as Moses did for someone else?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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