Anger Management

I am struck by God’s anger in this week’s Torah portion.  On the one hand, the people have already been difficult to deal with since Egypt – complaining, doubting, and whining.  It is enough to make anyone lose patience.  But this is God we are talking about.  It sounds like a soap opera. I hear, ‘Moses, you know those people, your people [Exodus 32:7] that you forced Me to rescue? Well, I have just had it with their attitude.’ The text continues, with God saying: “Now, let My anger blaze forth against them, that I may destroy them, and make of you [Moses] a great nation.” [Exodus 32:10].

Wow.  Of course, that isn’t what ensues.  Moses intervenes, pleading with God on behalf of the people.  He doesn’t extol their virtues, however, which would be disingenuous, and frankly unlikely to be convincing.  He appeals to God’s sense of right, to God’s promise of redemption, to Adonai’s powerful presence perceived by all the nations.  It is with God’s image that Moses is concerned – what will nations think of God if the Holy One was to act in this way?   And so, God relents, renouncing the punishment declared for God’s people [Exodus 32:14].

It is really hard to turn back and halt the runaway train of a declaration made in anger.   Like God, al achat kamah vachama, [how much more do] we need someone who is going to call us out when we are angry or upset, to help us see the bigger picture and guide us back onto an even keel?  Time That time for breathing and reflection is so important.  When we are on a tear, we need time to stop and reconsider. When we are angry, the affective part of our brain takes over, running us down an irrational path.  We say things we don’t mean and lose perspective.  Here, God models for us this stepping back.  In chapter 34 of this portion, the 13 Attributes of God, the very words that God taught Moses for the people to use whenever they needed to beg for divine compassion, follow these outbursts (the apostasy of the Israelites and the wrath of God – both a loss of grounding and faith), in order to remind us of the qualities of the Holy One of Blessing, and therefore the model of character after which we should strive.  In verse 6, one of God’s attributes is being ‘slow to anger’ – Erech apayim – literally, long-suffering.  If we are created in the image of God, and God is slow to anger, then we, too, should strive to be slow to anger. This quality in fact gives us human beings the time to repent when we have stumbled.

The Talmud teaches about angry responses in Pirkei Avot 5:11 – “There are four types of temperaments.  One who is easily angered and easily appeased – his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to appease – his flaw cancels his virtue.  One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased, is a chasid [pious]. One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked.

What makes you angry? What calms you down? There is an assumption in this passage that everyone loses his or her temper and becomes angry on occasion. It is the degree to which one is able to control one’s temper that makes all the difference. For me, my anger is usually aroused by circumstances beyond my control, things that somehow seem to be controlling me.  I don’t think I am alone in this, and it is ironic and universal how experiencing loss of control is about our own perception and experience, more than actual circumstance.  Buddhist tradition says: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” It makes me think of the midrash about Moses as a child: he unknowingly picks up the hot coals thinking they were shiny gems, put them to his lips to play, and ends up with a permanent speech impairment.  Being drawn to the coals is so tempting!

Rather than enduring the searing pain that comes with being angry, this Shabbat I pray notice those impulses to grasp at the seductive coals of anger, recognizing them for what they are and leave them to smolder in the fire where they belong.

[Ki Tissa 2014]


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kathy Herder
    Feb 14, 2014 @ 17:44:10

    Really good analogies here! Thanks, hope you are recovering well, Best, Kathy

    Pardon any typos from my iPhone’s auto correct spelling


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