Posted By The Stash

Our Sages famously warn that people should be careful of “how much they spend, how much they drink, and how angry they get.” But that does not mean that anger is a forbidden emotion. In Sefer Devarim, Moses recalls that when he descended from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the law in his hands and saw the people consumed with passionate worship of the Golden Calf, “I took the tablets that were in my hands, and I shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” Moses was not punished. In fact, many commentators praise his well directed anger, seeing it as an act of necessity and even teaching the people that their behaviour has gone beyond all limits. But, in this week’s parasha, when Moses angrily strikes the rock at Meribah instead of speaking to it he is immediately banned from entering the Land of Israel. Why was this incident different?

Let us consider the Meribah incident in a bit more detail. Next year we will try to understand why Aaron was punished when only Moses actually spoke and struck the rock. But consider the text. We are told that Moses and Aaron were required by G-d to assemble the argumentative people in front of a rock where “you will speak to it and it will yield its water.’ When the people were assembled, Moses abruptly spoke: “Hear now, you rebels! Shall we bring water forth to you from this rock?” Moses then struck the rock and water flowed out—as did the immediate Divine consequence.

It is now clear that while Moses’ angry flinging of the tablets was just as spontaneous as his outburst of angry words, there is a crucial difference. True, G-d had warned him that the people were busy worshipping the Calf, but the text states: “and Moses came down from the mountain and he saw the idol and the merriment….” What Moses actually saw was far worse than the Divine description. His subsequent anger was a natural outcome of what he saw. Not so in the Meribah incident. Moses had already seen water flow from a rock after he had struck it almost 40 years earlier. He and Aaron were therefore specifically told to “speak to the rock”, yet he could not control his anger. How do we know? From his words: he called the people “rebels”. As Hirsch points out—Moses was frustrated by their stubbornness in always returning to idol worship, and therefore engaged in hyperbole. No matter. The damage was done.

Anger has its uses, states Maimonides. It is right to rebuke a student verbally when one knows they are capable. One may even get angry at them for the sake of teaching them Torah. But pointless anger only produces the opposite reaction. How many students have been turned off by teachers who are always so angry that their emotions obscure learning? How many times do we go overboard in hurling angry words at our loved ones just because we are angry? Too often. This is perceived as “dishonest anger”, not really connected to the event in question, and it leaves the subject smarting and looking for a vengeful reply, or nursing a deep grudge. But “honest anger”—grabbing your child when they dash madly after a ball into a road just as a car comes by when they should know better—is vitally useful. The subject of the anger should be able to see immediately that they are being yelled at for their sake-- for their physical and/or psychological well being. This is effective anger, but it is challenging to master its deployment.

Too often we see anger used manipulatively. For that matter, too many of us use many emotions in a manipulative manner far too freely. Let us pray that we use our emotions honestly in our relationships with others. Many of our prayers teach us about mastering our emotions. The mitzvot serve as powerful tools of discipline. Discover some that speak to you and consider using them consistently to build self-discipline.

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