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.

Shabbat Hukkat: Where Anger Will Get You

This week we read beginning from Numbers 20 verse 7, in parashat Hukkat, as we continue in this second year of our Triennial Cycle to start not at the beginning of each parashah, but at the beginning of the middle third of it. We begin with a simple story, nothing out of the ordinary: the Israelites are complaining and G-d commands Moshe to act in response to the complaint. (One thing worth noting about our ancestors’ concept of G-d: complaints did not fall on deaf Divine ears.)

The people complain that there is no water. In the second verse of this year’s reading of Hukkat, G-d commands: Take your rod, assemble the congregation with Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock in front of their eyes; tell the rock to bring forth water, so that the people and their flocks may drink.” (Numbers 20.8)

If only it were that easy. Moshe assembles the people, but then, instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it, hard, twice. Water comes pouring out, and everyone slakes their thirst, flocks and herds too. That’s good, but the fact that Moshe hit the rock when he was supposed to merely speak to it is counted as a grave sin against G-d, so grave that it is for this disobedience that Moshe is informed that he will not enter the Promised Land.

Most commentaries on this reading spend a great deal of energy responding to the absolutely appropriate question we all have at this moment: for this Moshe is not allowed in? Some comments point to the higher standard a leader is held to; others suppose that this is emblematic of a larger leadership problem. My favorite suggestion is that G-d is desperately searching for any pretext at all to save Moshe, G-d’s friend, from the disappointment of what life will really be like in the Land when they reach it. (No reality is as good as the promise of it, after all.)

But there is another way to understand this reading and what was so terribly wrong with Moshe’s response, and that is the anger with which he speaks to the Israelites, and strikes the rock. Anger is one of the most destructive forces in our world; even when it is justifiable, one must be as careful with it as with fire, or any potentially destructive force. The sages of the Talmud rule that one may not discipline one’s child when one is angry, since anger causes irrational behavior and whatever we’re doing at that moment is not for the child’s good, but only to express the anger. (Talmud Mo’ed Katan 17a). Anger is defined as idolatry by Maimonides; he sees anger as the result of the disruption of our illusion of control.  (Maimonides Laws of Behavior 2:2). Only G-d has control, so what are you upset about?

One might forgive Moshe for forgetting that he was not G-d occasionally, since the Israelites sometimes treated him as if he really was G-d. Go back to their complaint just before creating the Golden Calf for an example. There, the people say make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32.1) Yet Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses our Teacher”, was all too human. We have enough proof of it: from murdering an overseer through this week’s evidence, Moshe was not always entirely in control of his emotions. Even Moshe.

What happened on that day, with that rock, was all too sadly, humanly ordinary. Human beings lose our temper, and cause damage to animate and inanimate things around us. Worse is what happens when human beings with power over others become angry, because in our anger, those of us who control others’ lives – our children, our employees, and in some cases whole communities and nations – do terrible things which cannot be undone.

It is not only Moshe who couldn’t enter the Land he longed for because of his anger. We distance ourselves from that land – of peace, of serenity, of safety –  with each harsh, careless word and act. As it was said in a powerful phrase in an old siddur:  we continue to wander the wilderness for our sins, which are confessed in the daily papers. Anger, it is said in our tradition, is the most dangerous of emotions. While we cannot do without its energy, it is a power that must be wisely harnessed, and always feared.

From the perspective of Jewish mysticism, every act echoes in every other act. There is no such thing as looking on aghast and unconnected; all our acts, small and quotidian or nation-altering, echo throughout the world. Let that make us cautious; let that make us hopeful. And most of all, let that make us count to ten before we act, that it be not in anger but in kindness.