Chukat: On the Edge of Anger

Everyone knows that hot feeling – the rage that rises when you are cut off or demeaned in a meeting, or when someone you don’t agree with seems to be shining. Anger has become a primary organizing force in our world, whether it’s the pandemic, global politics, economic troubles, or some other precipitating trauma, anger itself seems to be the backbeat driving the world conversation.  

Anger isn’t always bad; it’s a core emotion like love, happiness, and anxiety. Anger is a protective feeling connected to our deepest selves, but psychologists tell us that anger is a path to nowhere. When you live in your anger continuously, however, it can undermine relationships and corrode your general sense of well-being. Some feel that anger makes them feel most alive because it gets their heart rate moving and focuses their attention. Studies show that anger does not lead to catharsis, the emotional release that we all crave. Instead, anger is addictive, contagious and self-replicating and the true result of feeling angry is not feeling better but feeling worse. Anger leads to more anger within yourself and within others who might wish to retaliate. Or as the Talmud related a thousand years before psychology confirmed, “When a person becomes angry…wisdom departs from them, and if he [or she] is a prophet his prophecy departs from him.” (Pesachim 66b)

Anger is also cheaper than happiness. It’s far easier to offend and be offended than to be delighted or make others happy. Because of all of that there is no question that anger is having a moment in our society. Pundits and authors, entertainers and podcasters all know how addicting, pernicious, and profitable anger is. Entire industries have been developed to make you angry so you will want to listen more, buy more books or pay speaking fees so that they can make you angry all over again. Ask yourself, what have you read, watched, or listened to in the last twenty-four hours that aroused anger in you? Who is grifting you off your anger? Is your life better because of it?

We find the devastating effects of anger in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. The Israelites find themselves running out of water and they confront Moses and Aaron, ready to give up the entire project of the Exodus. Having no answer, the leaders go to God and ask for Divine intervention. God responds by telling them to take their staffs and assemble around a cluster of rocks and speak to the rock to draw forth water. (Numbers 19:8). Instead, Moses feels the rage rise inside of him; the hot anger roils at the lack of trust, even after years of liberation together that the Israelites would still rather go back to slavery than make it to the promised land. His anger grips him hard and he loses his temper, saying, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He then strikes the rock not once, but twice, and water gushes from the slag. (Numbers 19:10-11) The rabbis are quick to pick up that Moses struck the rock twice, explaining that at first only small amounts of water came out, so Moses struck it again. (HaEmek HaDavar) This teaches that even if Moses achieved a small amount through his anger, it was not enough for him, so he struck again.

Imagine for a moment that you are an Israelite, even one who has been complaining bitterly about the journey and you see your prophet and leader act in this way. What do his remarks and attitude say to you? What do his actions reveal to you about the most important project of redemption in the world? When anyone, especially leaders, lets their rage control them instead of them controlling their rage, then it excuses the same behavior among everyone. When leaders lose control, the whole world suffers. (Kiddushin 40b

What did Moses gain in that moment, acting out of his anger? Certainly, both the satisfaction of expressing himself and a flowing stream in the middle of the desert. But what did he lose by losing control?

The Torah continues. God said to Moses, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12) By letting his anger control him Moses gained nothing but a bad temper and what he lost was his entire future. 

What was true for Moses then is still true for us now. If you feel most alive in your anger, then you are striving for the wrong kind of vitality. Anger must be controlled and never the source of our actions.  No successful future has ever been built on anger because anger cannot lead to a better world, only a more resentful one. Either we control our anger or it will control us, and all of our lives depend on it. 

Shabbat Shalom

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