Shabbat Hukkat: Don’t Be Angry

The center is having a hard time holding. Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi [read: teacher] Moshe” has already withstood the upheaval of the Golden Calf incident, the Korakh rebellion, and the catastrophe of the scout’s report only last week, the aftermath of which saw the generation of the wilderness doomed to die before reaching the Promised Land. 

This week, in the midst of a continuing stream of legislation coming from On High, he suffers the most personal, and perhaps, most significant blow. Not to his leadership, but to his heart: his big sister, Miriam, dies. She who watched over him when he floated in the bulrushes, she who adroitly managed the princess who found him so well that his own mother was hired to be his wet nurse; she who led the people in song and dance, feeding their souls as Moshe challenged their physical and mental readiness to leave slavery, over and over again.

The Israelite people, insensitive as we all are to another’s grief, start up again with the complaining. This time it’s about the water: the water is undrinkable. Once again, Moshe brings the people’s complaint before G*d; once again, G*d provides a remedy. And once again, Moshe is to duly carry it out.

But this time he snaps. Instead of doing what G*d has commanded, he – Moshe – the one who has stood between the people and G*d’s anger countless times, he, this time, breaks out in anger against his people. Commanded to speak to a rock in order to bring forth its water, he instead strikes it with his staff. Water flows, regardless – but nothing is ever again going to be the same.

Not for Moshe, who is doomed in his turn by G*d’s decree to die before reaching the Promised Land because he struck the rock.

Not for the people, caught in one more violent upheaval which they caused by their lack of ability, or perhaps it’s willingness, to learn.

And not for us, who read this parashat hashavua and will, once again, not be able, really, to change.

All this comes about because of anger. Anger causes Moshe to lose it; anger born of fear, of frustration and of confusion, closes the people’s ears; and we – we are no different than our ancestors. Still prey to overwhelming emotions, still to ready to be angry. 

The Sages teach that of all the emotions, anger is the most dangerous. This parashah gives us the paradigmatic example of its destructiveness. They taught: “Whoever tears garments in anger, breaks vessels in anger, and scatters money in anger, regard that person as an idolator” (BT Shabbat 105b), and “anger in a home is like a worm in a fruit.” (BT Sotah 3b) 

But is it not true that righteous anger is a virtue? Here Moshe, even in his fault, can teach us. From him we learn this week that anger which causes harm is not righteous. It is never ad hominem, focusing on the person rather than the problem; it never descends into self-righteousness; it lives alongside the mitzvot, rather than leading into transgression. It’s hard to find, in short.

This week has been no less shocking than last, and we must find a way to keep our center, and that of our community, strong, as a bulwark against the madness. We do so, ironically, by recognizing that our own small acts, here where we are, share the same world as Nice and Ankara, as Baton Rouge and Orlando and Minnesota, and wherever the next terror will arise. It’s all the same darkness, and we must continue to defy it by taking care of each other, by practicing kindness, and refusing to air our own angers – how petty they might seem in comparison! Anger is a natural response to stress, but it is one we must work to overcome, if we would do what little we can to work toward the redemption of this terrifying world.

We take care of each other by showing up for each other, not least by coming to shul or attending a minyan, but also by being present whenever we are with each other – even by email, even on the phone, and especially in person. Don’t be angry – be determined. Don’t be angry – take that energy and blast the love you have within you instead. Love will only conquer hate if it’s just as loud.

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