Many years ago, as I walked into my sixth-grade classroom, I witnessed my students harassing another student and I slammed the door shut really hard and screamed at the perpetrators. A sculptured gourd, a beloved souvenir from a trip to Ethiopia, dropped off the shelf next to the door and shattered. While my anger was justifiable, slamming the door had consequences. I had loved that gourd and I had no way of replacing it and I felt a palpable loss. However, the harassment stopped and the children were stunned into silence. I never experienced another incident of harassment in that class again. Anger had had an impact for the good. However, while I might have scared students outwardly, I might not have dealt with the inner causes of the behavior. Could that anger have been expressed differently, leaving a material memory still intact, and knowing that I had really made a difference to the inner life of my students?
In this week’s parsha, we witness the consequences of anger in many forms. Aaron responds to the anger and frustration of the children of Israel at Moses being late from his journey of revelation on Mt. Sinai. He forges a golden calf to appease them.
When God bears witnesses to the event, expressing rage, God wants to destroy the children of Israel, but Moses appeases God. As soon as Moses sees the calf, his anger flares. He casts the Tablets out of his hands and shatters them, but God appeases Moses.
What is the meaning of all of this anger in the story of the Exodus and the revelation at Mt. Sinai?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written a powerful exposition on the role of anger in our tradition in a commentary entitled, Anger: Its Uses and Abuses. On the one hand, when Moses smashes the Tablets, God and many commentators forgive him, justifying the use of anger. On the other hand, when Moses strikes the rock in anger to bring forth water instead of speaking to it, God punishes him (Numbers 20:12), thereby indicating that this was an unjust use of anger. Rabbi Sacks uses a passage from Maimonides’ law code, Mishneh Torah to inform us of the difference, which is described as “feeling anger” vs “showing anger”. While we might feel anger, its expression is often detrimental and people will reject the message behind it. However, if we learn to channel our anger and express it in a meaningful and purposeful way, it can be instructive.
Thus, when Moses argues with God that destroying the people over the golden calf would negate the Exodus and its message to the people and to the surrounding nations about God’s power and mercy in freeing people from slavery, God is appeased and the anger is re-channeled. Further, when Moses actually witnesses the golden calf and its worship, his demonstration of anger supports a response to injustice and is supported by God and the commentators. However, when Moses hits the rock, rather than speaking to it to demonstrate God’s power, he is disobeying God’s instructions and appears to be setting up his agency in the miracle rather than God’s.
Yet, hitting the rock appears to many as a form of frustration over leading a people who constantly complain and about losing his siblings who used to help him deal with that. Maimonides cautions us regarding expressing intense emotions. Our tradition, most notably with the Mussar movement, gives us tools to reflect upon why we are feeling the way we are, so that we can deal with our feelings appropriately. Perhaps, if Moses had reflected on his sense of loss at Miriam’s death, he could have recognized his deflected rage when the people complained about a lack of water, which Miriam used to provide. In any case, that rage resulted in severe consequences, which were irrevocable.
In listening to the news today, Melinda Gates expressed that anger at a child’s death due to a lack of medical care moved her to become an activist in healthcare world-wide. Justifiable anger can be a strong motivator for social justice action and the Gates Foundation has made a deep impact not only in terms of saving lives, but on the consciousness regarding world health. My anger at witnessing harassment was a strong motivator. However, if I had had better spiritual tools at the time, in using my anger consciously, I might have been able to have had a similar effect without the negative consequences of slamming a door.