Recall the last time you became really angry, blindingly, uncontrollably angry, so filled with rage that you couldn’t think straight.
What did you do about it? Did you act out or say anything? When you calmed down did you feel justified in what you’d felt and satisfied in having said or done what you did? Was there a positive result to whatever you said or did, that is, did the relationship get stronger and better, or did your relationship with the person with whom you were angry deteriorate?
I ask these questions because this week’s Torah portion tells of an incident in Moses’ life when his anger had serious consequences for him and the people of Israel. The incident took place following the death of his sister Miriam, when he and his brother Aaron were still in mourning. The children of Israel had taken the occasion to complain bitterly about having no water. Moses and Aaron appealed to God, and God told Moses to gather the people, speak to a rock, and water would flow thus sating the people’s thirst.
Moses, however, was so overwrought with grief and was so aggravated at the people’s incessant complaining that instead of speaking to the rock he struck it twice with his rod. Water gushed out, as God had promised, but God was incensed by Moses’ defiance and punished him harshly:
“Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)
To deny Moses the privilege of entering the Promised Land was devastating to a man who had dedicated his life to God and the people; and we ask what sin could hold such a consequence?
The rabbis offer a number of ideas. Maimonides said that Moses’ bitter language did not become his position as leader. The Talmud says that Moses lacked sufficient faith. Nahmanides thought that Moses showed hubris when he accepted credit for providing water in God’s place. And Rashi said that Moses lost his temper.
I want to focus on Rashi’s interpretation. Isn’t rage part of being human? After all, we all get angry.
There are many contemporary parallels to Moses’ fury. One is “road rage” when a driver becomes so infuriated at another driver that he seeks vengeance. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that “road rage” is a factor in 28,000 highway deaths every year.
Studies of the approximately 16,000 murders annually in America reveal that a majority are committed by people who know personally the victim thus defining it as a crime of passion.
Of course, not all anger results in violent acts. Language is a powerful weapon when used skillfully against our adversaries. The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is wrong. What we say and how we say it can do serious damage.
There are times, of course, when anger is justified, such as against those who misuse their talents for evil ends, in the face of ingratitude, lies, slander, theft, mistreatment of the poor, cruelty, and false claims in God’s Name. (see A Code of Jewish Ethics, volume 1, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, pages 258-262).
Besides righteous indignation, the tongue can cause serious damage to marriages, friendships, and relationships between co-workers, as well as inspire fear in the home, work and school settings and destroy trust.
Holding onto our anger also has a terrible effect. Mark Twain said that “anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
If we follow Rashi’s interpretation, despite his strength as a leader, prophet, liberator, legislator, judge, and military chieftain, Moses lost the promise because he could not control his rage.
Tradition asks what constitutes real strength: Eizeh hu gibor? – Who is strong? Hakovesh et yitzro – Not the one who has physical strength, public or familial power, but “the one who controls his/her passions.” (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 4:1) The Vilna Gaon understood the term yitzro as “his anger.”
In this sense, Moses showed a core weakness when he lost his temper before the people. If Moses was so capable of losing control, then so much the more so that each of us needs to check our rage when ever it shows itself, be it on the highway, within the home, among friends, at work, and before strangers. If we are able to do so, we and everyone around us will be the better for it.