“Striking the Stone: the Parameters of Anger”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the many topics in this week’s parasha is the report of Miriam’s death and the subsequent lack of water. We have written about the connection between Miriam and the lack of water previously (Chukat 5771-2011).

For thirty-nine long years, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness. Almost four decades passed since G-d decreed that all the adult males, twenty years old or older, would not be allowed to enter the land of Israel due to the sin of the spies who returned with evil reports about the land of Israel. In the first month of the very last year in the wilderness, the people of Israel arrived at Zin and settled in Kadesh, where Miriam died and is buried.

Suddenly, there was no water for the assembly, and the people begin to quarrel with Moses. Moses and Aaron approach the entrance of the Tabernacle, fall on their faces, when G-d’s glory appears to them.

G-d then instructs Moses to take his staff, gather all the people together with Aaron, and go speak to the rock before the people’s eyes, so that the rock shall yield its water. Moses will then give the people and their animals water to drink.

As G-d instructed, Moses takes his staff before G-d. Along with Aaron, he gathers the congregation together before the rock, and says to the people (Numbers 20:10), “Shim’oo nah ha’moh’reem, ha’min ha’seh’lah ha’zeh no’tzee lah’chem mah’yeem?” Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock? Moses then raises his arm and strikes the rock with his staff twice. Water comes flowing forth, and Moses gives both the people and their animals water to drink.

G-d is displeased with Moses’ disobedience and says to him and Aaron, Numbers 20:12, “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them.”

There is great diversity of opinion over the actual sin of Moses and Aaron (Chukat 5765-2005). In fact, Nachmanides declares, “The matter is a great secret of the mysteries of the Torah.”

However, one of the most prominent explanations offered is that Moses sinned by becoming angry and calling the people rebels.

Maimonides, in his introduction to Tractate Avot, Shemonah Perakim, states that not only did Moses sin by becoming angry at the people, his sin was actually compounded because the people assumed that whatever Moses said to them was a reflection of G-d’s will. Yet, nowhere in the scriptural text do we find that G-d was angered by the people’s complaint.

As we have seen in a number of instances in scripture, the seemingly inconsequential sins of great people are regarded by the Al-mighty as great transgressions. This is true not only in the present case with Moses and Aaron here at the waters of Meriba (contention), but also at the tragic death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, for bringing a strange fire.

Objectively, one can easily conclude that Moses and Aaron were entirely correct in expressing great anger at the people. Because of their previous lack of faith and faithfulness, the people had been punished to travel in the wilderness for thirty-nine years. Now, as they are about to enter the Promised Land, they quarrel with Moses saying (Numbers 20:3-4), “If only we had perished as our brethren perished before G-d. Why have you brought the congregation of G-d to this wilderness to die here, we and our animals?”

According to the Midrash, each year on Tisha b’Av, the congregation of Israel witnessed one fortieth of the male adults die. Yet, the people seem not to have learned any lesson, and hardly any of Moses’ teachings seem to have registered. Moses’ and Aaron’s rage seem well justified.

But G-d judges great people differently. Or does He?

The Mishna in Avot 5:14 (Ethics of our Fathers) states that there are four types of temperaments in people: 1. One who is angered easily and pacified easily. His gain is offset by his loss. 2. One who is hard to anger and hard to pacify. His loss is offset by his gain. 3. One who is hard to anger and easy to pacify is considered pious. 4. One who is easily angered and hard to pacify is considered wicked.

Maimonides, in his Code of Laws of Ethical Conduct 1:1, writes that all human emotions and traits have their place, whether anger, forgiveness, conceit, modesty, miserliness or generosity.

In general, Maimonides recommends the “middle way” or the “Golden Mean” as optimal. One should not be overly generous, nor overly stingy, not overly conceited, nor overly modest. When it comes to anger, however, Maimonides adds additional restrictions. Maimonides advises that a person should not be petulant and easy to anger, nor like a dead person who never feels, but rather intermediate; he should not get angry except for great matters worthy of being angry, so that the subject of the anger should not repeat what he did.

In Laws of Ethical Conduct 2:3, Maimonides writes that there are some behaviors in which a person is entirely forbidden to engage, even in moderation. Anger is an extremely bad trait, and it is fitting that a person distance himself from it to the extreme and teach himself not to be angry, even in instances that anger appears appropriate.

Maimonides even suggests that if a parent or spouse wants to get angry at his children or household, or if a public leader wishes to express anger at his community, he may show anger publicly, but inwardly he should maintain composure, feigning anger, and not be really angry. Maimonides even quotes the early sages, saying that those who become angry are like idol worshipers. If one who is wise becomes angry, his wisdom departs from him. If he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. Those who are habitually angry, their life is not a life.

The Talmud, in Pesachim 113b, states that there are three people that the Holy One loves: One who does not get angry, one who does not get drunk, and one who does not stand on ceremony. The Talmud, in Eruvin 65b, quotes Rabbi Ila’i, who maintains that a person is known by three things: His cup (how he holds his wine), his pocket (his generosity), and by his anger.

Rabbi Berel Wein, commenting on the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that was cited previously, says:

A person who is difficult to provoke, who can hold the demon of temper in check, and even if momentarily angered recovers good spirits and tolerance very quickly, is a truly blessed individual. The combination of wise attitude toward life and training in self control from early youth, can achieve much toward helping one become such a blessed person. There is an element of holiness in a person who controls his anger, and such a person is therefore called Chassid, someone of spiritual piety. People who are slow to anger and quick to forgive imitate the traits of our Creator, and thus are truly pious.

Dr. Erica Brown, a well-known writer and educator in the Greater Washington area, wrote poignantly in a recent weekly column about an effective and well-regarded teacher that she had, who was always rather pleasant. On one occasion, however, he lost it and became very angry with his students. She cannot remember what the circumstance was that provoked him to lose his temper, but since that incident, her perception of the teacher has never been the same, and, obviously, she remembers it until this very day.

Notwithstanding the various strategies that may be employed to control our tempers, what is most important is that we recognize the long-range impact of our words. Just as one single outburst prevented Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land, in effect, terminating these great men’s lifelong dream, so too, one inappropriate word of ours said in anger can destroy a relationship, destroy a person’s life, destroy a family, and destroy a future.

Perhaps that is why Ben Zoma declares in Avot 4:1, “Ay’zeh’hoo gee’bohr?” Who is strong? Who is heroic? He who subdues his anger. Ben Zoma’s statement is followed by a supporting verse from Proverbs 16:32, “He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city.” The choice of the word “Gee’bohr,” strong, heroic, in this context is no accident.

May the Al-mighty give us the strength, insight and fortitude to be heroic in our lives, our demeanors and in our relationships.

May you be blessed.