Ki Tisa: G-d, Moses, and Anger Management

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  This exclamation from the 1976 movie Network seems to fit this week’s Parasha, Ki Tissa.  

When Moses does not return from atop Mt. Sinai, where G-d is instructing him, Aaron and the people build the golden calf.  G-d reacts, saying to Moses, “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.”  (Ex 32:10).  Moses manages to dissuade G-d from destroying His people (arguing, "What will the Egyptians think, and anyway, You promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that You’d give us Israel!").  

It’s then that Moses lets loose his own rage.  He descends the mountain, smashes the tablets, grinds them into powder, strews the debris upon water, and makes the people drink it! He then rallies the Levites to kill 3,000 of the apostates!  Clearly, the "most humble man on earth" (Numbers 12:3) was not also the most even-tempered! 

Moses returns to G-d’s presence to seek forgiveness on the people’s behalf, but he is only partially successful; G-d sends a plague – and then refuses to accompany the survivors as they continue their journey, lest their “stiffneckedness” provoke G-d to destroy them.   

In other places in Torah, as well, both G-d and Moses get very, very angry, and sometimes lash out with terrible results.  And yet, anger certainly does not “define” them.  

Perhaps there are those of us who never get so angry that we lose control and do things we later regret.  But, I suspect that for most (or all) of us, anger is at least occasionally a problem.  And yet, it need not define us. 

According to the American Psychological Association’s website: 

Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems—problems at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your life. And it can make you feel as though you're at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion.

Judaism – specifically, the discipline of Mussar, offers a version of “anger management” that may seem counter-intuitive.   It avoids focusing directly upon diminishing or eliminating the negative trait, i.e., “I have a destructive negative trait that I must learn to control.”   We are instead taught to focus on strengthening our countervailing positive trait(s), such as patience, empathy, calmness, and humility.  

Each of us has these (and all other) positive traits in some degree.  Focusing on strengthening our counter-balancing positives, rather than directly upon diminishing our negatives, has advantages.  It avoids reproachful self-feelings and rewards small successes, both of which tend to be reinforcing and to expand to other positive or negative traits.  

Perhaps more importantly, trying to improve by focusing on our negative traits or behavior is a strategy likely doomed to failure.  (For similar reasons, we are modernly advised not to diet, but to make healthy food choices).  

Later in the very same Torah portion in which G-d and Moses exhibit great anger, their focus turns to mercy.  Moses asks to know G-d better, and in response, G-d pronounces G-d’s “thirteen attributes of mercy:” 

The Lord!  The Lord! A G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:6-8). 

Perhaps in so stating, G-d was teaching Moses – and us -- Mussar-nick behavior.  By describing G-d’s own self as “compassionate…slow to anger…forgiving,” G-d was also showing G-dself, Moses, (and us) how to actually strengthen these traits.  Indeed, it seems to have worked immediately.  In response to Moses’ plea, G-d not only forgave but emphatically reaffirmed G-d’s covenant with the Israelites (Ex. 34:10, et. al.). 

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” We might amend this to, “To get angry and to forgive are both human and divine.”

We don’t need to learn how to do the former, but we can learn the latter from G-d and Torah. Then we will only smell (Ex. 31:11), but not feel, burning incense.     

Shabbat shalom! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3