Parshat Chukat - Angry Humans

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Posted on 07/10/19

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The Rambam authored a well-known principle known as the “golden mean” or the middle road. Every trait embedded within the human heart can ultimately prove beneficial, but can also prove dangerous in excess. Given the inherent potential and danger within every trait, each quality should be carefully calibrated. For example, a person shouldn’t be excessively frugal but also not wasteful or profligate. Spending habits should be carefully balanced to avoid either extreme. Similarly, a person shouldn’t be eternally solemn but also shouldn’t be overexcited and frenzied; ideally a balance between sincerity, focus and humor should be struck, to enable a contented life and a pleasant demeanor.  The Rambam underscores that the entire range of human character traits each have purpose and function; balancing these traits creates emotional versatility and richness of experience.

The Rambam does list two exceptions- highlighting two traits which are so toxic and irrepresible that they should be contracted or shrunk to an extreme. The two traits of anger and arrogance are exceptional and shouldn’t be introduced into the human heart- even in moderation. Though generally endorsing balance, the Rambam supports an aggressive vacating of these dangerous qualities.

To highlight the danger of anger, the Rambam showcases the early retirement of Moshe in parshat Chukat. For the Rambam, it was Moshe’s irritation at the ‘rock’ and not his decision to strike the rock, which led to his ultimate dismissal. He served as an almost perfect moral role model for an entire nation and his temper provided a dangerous message that anger was an appropriate response. His angry declaration of ‘shim’u nah hamorim’ was morally confusing to a nation which had emulated his unsurpassed moral character. His inability – at his level – to restrain his anger, led to his being replaced by Yehoshua. Our own struggle with anger forms a cornerstone in our efforts to construct a moral personality.

Life provides ample disappointments and frustrations which often yield resentment and anger. With sustained effort at self-examination and moral introspection, anger can, ultimately, be eliminated or significantly curtailed. However, this requires great patience, great commitment and more likely occurs later in life and we are lessoned by life as to the dangers of anger. Most teenagers and young adults live with unavoidable anger and until the anger subsides must strive to manage this trait.

Managing our anger is so challenging precisely because anger is so consuming; it envelops and transforms us emotionally, psychologically and even physically. When angry, our diaphragm literally “rises”, our breath shortens, our palms sweat, and our bodies become unsteady by the dizzying effects of anger. This state of “temporary lunacy” is certainly not suitable for decisions, responses and, of course, healthy communication. Too often, our responses to the people and events which anger us- taken in the heat of the moment- are humiliating, hurtful and typically a bit of each. Thomas Jefferson coined his own set of “10 Commandments” to enable a morally sensitive lifestyle. One of his rules read “When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred”. However, this behavior and discretion is easier said than done. Anger convinces us that immediate action is necessary and that a delayed response will be ineffective. Anger goads us toward immediate and, ultimately, erratic responses.  Only through repeated trial and error and repeated failures, when we respond in a state of anger, do we begin to appreciate the folly of immediate and impetuous responses taken when angry. It is very uncommon that a response – either a course of action or a verbal response- will “expire” or be less effective if it is delayed twenty four hours. Almost always, that delay insures that the response is more measured, more intelligent, less harmful and, ultimately, of greater effectiveness. Even if anger can’t be eliminated it can be managed.

Of course, over time and with great effort anger itself, can be eliminated. Typically, the source of anger is the sense of being cheated or shortchanged or opportunities we feel rightfully “deserving” of. When life doesn’t afford us the prospects we believe we merit, we become angry at the “fates” or at the people who deny or obstruct our rightful “privileges”.

For this reason, humility and lack of entitlement are curbs against the emotion of anger. A humble person doesn’t carry ‘expectations’ and is far less likely to become enraged if these expectations are dashed. Chazal showcase Hillel as a paradigm of a humble person. To prove his humility a story of his forbearance is cited. One erev Shabbat he was repeatedly interrupted by an annoying questioner who had wagered money that could infuriate Hillel. Facing ridiculous and inane questions, Hillel responded with patience and equanimity. In this story, his self-restraint and lack of temper are attributed to his humility. A more self-centered person would have valued his erev Shabbat preparation time, and have become annoyed that his privacy was breached. Hillel was too humble even for this expectation, didn’t view himself as “deserving his privacy”, and wasn’t outraged that his time was taken by this annoying gambler. The more humble and less entitled we become, the less ground for anger to take root within our hearts.

Of course, a religious person possesses a more powerful anger-deterrent – the presence of G-d. Chazal claim that anger is equivalent to idol worship- implying that a more palpable sense of G-d would certainly discourage manic expressions of anger. Uncontrolled rage generally indicates a diminished sense of G-d in our lives. If He were really “in the room”, our responses would undoubtedly be more muted and reserved. Furthermore, presence of G-d should reduce self-centeredness and entitlement, which should also eliminate the fuses which ignite our anger. A more inflated sense of self inflates expectations which, when unfulfilled, deeply disappoint us and often ‘bleed’ into anger. The presence of G-d should, ideally, lead to decentralization of self, which in turn should moderate our expectations.