September 19, 2018

When anger consumes us

I’ve been feeling pretty angry these past weeks as I watch the news and witness the harm that the Trump Administration has caused 2500+ children and their parents that crossed the border illegally. The moral outrage that a vast majority of Americans feel has had some impact on the President and forced him to cave and sign an executive order halting the separation of families. But the policy says nothing about all those children who were sent to Michigan, New York, and fifteen other places as their parents were sent home to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where violence had forced these families out of fear for their lives to escape in the first place, grounds to grant political asylum in the United States.

At times I’ve not been able to think straight because I’ve been so righteously enraged.

This issue raises an important question about how we handle anger, not only as we deal with the impact that family separation is having on these children, but what we do about the anger we feel with members of our family, co-workers, and friends when we feel slighted or abused.

Do we act out physically or express ourselves verbally? When we’re calm, do we feel justified in what we said and did? Was there a positive result? Did the relationship with the person with whom we were angry get stronger and better, or did it deteriorate?

I ask these questions not only in the wake of the events of these last few weeks on our southern border, but also because this week’s Torah portion Hukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) 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 Miriam when her brothers, Moses and Aaron, were mourning their loss of her. The people complained bitterly about their sudden lack of 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, weariness and rage and he was so aggravated by the people’s incessant complaining that instead of speaking to the rock he struck it twice with his rod. Water did indeed gush out in torrents, as God had promised, but the Almighty was incensed by Moses’ defiance and punished him harshly for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it:

“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 must have been devastating to a man who had dedicated his life to God and the people. We have to ask, what was it about this sin that carried such an extreme consequence.

The rabbis offer a number of ideas. Maimonides said that Moses’ bitter language didn’t become his position as leader. The Talmud says that Moses lacked sufficient faith. Nahmanides thought that Moses showed hubris in accepting credit for providing water instead of acknowledging that God provided it. And Rashi said that Moses simply lost his temper.

There are many contemporary parallels to Moses’ fury. One is “road rage” when a driver becomes so infuriated at another driver that s/he seeks vengeance. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that “road rage” is a major factor in 40,000 total traffic deaths in 2017.

Studies of the 17,250 murders in 2016 in the United States indicate that a vast majority are committed by people who know personally the victim.

Of course, not all anger results in physical violence. 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 cause serious damage.

There are times when anger is fully justified, such as in the face of ingratitude, lies, slander, theft, mistreatment of the poor and children, 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, a loose and vicious tongue can cause serious damage to marriages, friendships, and relationships. Verbal assault can inspire fear in the home, at work and in school settings, and ultimately destroy trust, the most important cohesive in friendship.

Holding onto our anger, however, 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.” We have to have constructive ways of expressing the hurt that gives rise to anger.

If we follow Rashi’s interpretation that Moses’ sin was in his expression of anger with the people, despite his strength as a leader, as prophet, liberator, legislator, judge, and military chieftain, he lost God’s promise because he couldn’t control his rage.

Tradition asks what constitutes real strength: Eizeh hu gibor? – Who is strong? The answer: Hakovesh et yitzro – [Not the one who has physical strength, public or familial power, but] the one who controls one’s passion.” (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 with the people. If Moses was so capable of losing control, so much the more so do each of us needs to check our rage when we feel it, be it on the highway, in the home, with our spouses and partners, among friends, at work, and with strangers. If we are able to do so, we and everyone around us will be the better for it.

Shabbat shalom!