We all fall prey to anger &mdash that is our humanity and our failing


Numbers 16:1-18:32

Isaiah 66:1-24

Anger! Even the great Moshe Rabeinu succumbed to it, and on more than one occasion. The beginning of his journey as the Israelite leader in Egypt begins with an act of violence, perhaps born out of an onrush of anger. But it is in the journeys of the desert that anger flashes out the most.

Breaking the tablets of the law at Mount Sinai may have been done in a fit of pique, and hitting the rock in anger for water will prevent Moshe’s entry into the Promised Land.

The desert, much like life, is a place in which we often experience an endless flow of difficulties, hindrances and disappointments. Frustrations overflow, leading to an infectious outbreak of complaining, accusation, personal attack and, ultimately, rebellion in the Israelite camp.

God lashes out in fury and only Moshe calmly and courageously stands in the rift between God and the people in an attempt to heal it.

But even Moshe has a breaking point.

This week’s parasha speaks of four separate uprisings, all interlaced in the text, in the Israelite camp. It is when Datan and Aviram accuse him of incompetent and deceitful leadership that Moshe finally loses his temper: “Moshe became furious and said to Adonai ‘Pay no heed to their offering …'” (16:15)

Rashi interprets the Hebrew to mean that Moshe “was saddened,” while Rabbi Barukh Epstein (1860-1941) takes the verse literally: “Many commentators are amazed that Moshe was entrapped by his anger to the point that he prayed to God to disregard their offerings of repentance.” It might not be coincidental that Moshe’s anger is aroused specifically when he is personally attacked!

If Moshe Rabeinu can be seduced by anger, anger is clearly a powerful force and a dangerous impediment to the spiritual life — so dangerous, in fact, that Maimonides writes, “Anyone who becomes angry is likened to an idolater.”

Thinking about my own experiences with being angry, I began to understand Maimonides’ ruling. When I am overcome with anger, I lose all connection to anything but my own anger. The object of my anger, other people, even God, disappear, swallowed by my ego and rage.

Anger puts me in the center of the universe, and makes God a no thing.

It’s worth contemplating what it is that makes anger so powerful. Anger is often born from fear, especially of loss, from disappointment and from hating some experience we are powerless to change. Most commonly anger grows from deep hurt at personal attack. Working spiritually with anger is difficult — even Moshe succumbed — in part because we are more than likely to hate being angry and to shame ourselves for having failed again. The Hassidic master Reb Moshe Leib of Sassov taught that conquering anger is the highest spiritual achievement.

It’s important to recognize that anger can be an appropriate response to injustice or wrongdoing, but this might best be expressed calmly and without rancor, as “cold anger.” Here we have to remind ourselves to be gentle and compassionate even in our anger.

It’s also worth remembering that anger can be useful in showing us where we are stuck the most. We might begin to accept moments of anger as opportunities for spiritual growth rather than as moments of personal failure, and become intimate with them.

It can be helpful to have a physical reminder to help us contain anger. Reb Yitzchak of Vorke had a special coat that he called his “anger coat.” When he became angry he would go and put on his “anger coat’ and his anger would abate. A rubber band around the wrist may work too.

It may also be helpful to remember that God is present in every experience and to search out the spark of divinity in the source of our anger.

This very experience is a gift that might lead us to a more balanced and compassionate life.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.