Ki Tissa: The Calm During The Storm

Which are the best ways to calm a very angry person who threatens to do something rash? 

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), provides practical advice through example. 

When the Israelites built a golden calf and worshipped it as the god who brought them out of Egypt, G-d was so infuriated that His “nostrils burned.”  He told Moses that He intended to destroy the Israelites and instead make of Moses a great nation. 

To calm G-d, Moses used a three-fold strategy:

1.  He first asked G-d not to be so angry, and to turn away from His announced intention. 

2.  Perhaps anticipating a “why should I?” response, Moses immediately pointed out that the announced plan was ill-advised, since it would not be in G-d’s best interest.  Indeed, it would be counterproductive, since the Egyptians would say that G-d was evil, having only rescued His people from slavery in order to kill them in the desert.  (Or perhaps worse, because G-d was incapable of delivering on His promise to lead them to the Promised Land).

3.  He reminded G-d of His promises to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (to make their descendants as numerous as the stars and to give them Canaan) -- and of the reason He made that promise – their merit.  Wiping out the Israelites would be a betrayal of those promises and unfair to those whom G-d had already found worthy. 

These strategies worked. Although G-d was still angry (He refused to “personally” lead the Israelites on their wanderings), He rescinded His initial terrible sentence.

But what if G-d had been angry at Moses, finding his leadership lacking and holding him accountable for the people’s egregious conduct? Indeed, it was Moses' own brother, Aaron, who molded the calf and told the people to worship it.  Judaism's answer to Abel's question "Am I my brother's keeper?" is emphatically, "Yes!" 

Had G-d been angry at Moses, he might have employed additional practical strategies that the Bible also teaches: 

1.  If possible, letting the worst of the anger pass.  “Do not try and pacify your fellow in his hour of anger.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:18; some eds. 4:23).

2.  Being as calm as possible.  “A gentle response pacifies wrath.” (Proverbs 15:1). One might also say, “Don’t pour oil on a fire.”

3.  Beginning by asking for mercy (“Please don’t be angry) and then acknowledging fault and/or responsibility.  Judah used this approach with Joseph when Benjamin was apparently caught stealing (unbeknownst to Judah, it was a set-up by Joseph).       

Learning and recalling the Bible’s practical wisdom for our own benefit is one of the most important reasons to read and reread it. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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