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Hukkat. An Anger Problem

One of the most enigmatic episodes of the entire Torah is in Parshat Hukkat. It is the scene in which Moses hits the rock, and is restricted by God from entering the Promised Land that he held so dear. The problem, the great mystery here, debated by all the classical commentaries, is what Moses did wrong. Moses seems to follow God’s instructions. Why is he punished?

…The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock …

Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him.

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock;

He said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.

Out came copious water…

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “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.” (20:7-12)

  • When you read the text, can you identify how Moses sinned?

It is very difficult to identify a clear, explicit sin.

Rashi says that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Others blame Moses for hitting twice rather than a single time. But these answers are unsatisfying; after all water from a rock is a supreme miracle, however you do it! Others suggest that when Moses uses the collective “we” he was somehow minimizing God’s role. Well, that is certainly possible.

Rambam has a fascinating perspective:

“God found fault with Moses that such a man as he should show anger in the presence of the entire community of Israel, where wrath is unbecoming. This was a profanation of God's name. ...When the people saw that he spoke with anger, they said, "… God is angry with us for demanding water…". However, we do not find God was angry when he spoke to Moses about this.” (Maimonides. Shmonah Perakim ch.4)

When the Rambam hears Moses label the Israelites as "rebels", he hears anger, and he imagines Moses in a rage. This was wrong for two reasons. The first, because it is unfitting for a role-model such as Moses to act in anger. Second, it misrepresented God; God wasn’t angry, and Moses’ action led Israel to think that they had sinned by requesting drinking water from God.

"When a wise man gets angry, his wisdom leaves him"

This is a fascinating reading especially because rage isn’t mentioned explicitly by the biblical verses. But clearly, the Rambam senses the anger latent in Moses’ language(*), and Rambam cannot imagine any greater “Hillul Hashem" – religious desecration – than anger. Elsewhere, Maimonides writes:

Anger is also an exceedingly bad character trait. It is fitting and proper that a person distance oneself absolutely to the opposite extreme. One should teach oneself not to become angry even when it is appropriate to be angry. If he wishes to arouse fear in his children and household - or within the community, if he is a communal leader - and wishes to be angry at them to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should express anger outwardly … but should be inwardly calm. He should be like an actor who acts angry but is not himself angry.

The early Sages said: Anyone who becomes angry is like one who worships idols. They also said: Whenever one becomes angry, if he is a wise man, his wisdom leaves him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him. The life of the irate is not true life.” (Hilchot Deot ch.2)

So, please discuss:

  • Why is anger so bad in the view of the Rabbis?

  • Why is the meaning of the statement that anger is like idol-worship? Or that “ the life of an angry person is no life? What is meant by these statements?

  • Is anger ever good or useful?

  • If a teacher or boss gets angry with you, what does it make you feel? Is it effective?

  • When you get angry, do you feel in control, or out of control?

Maybe the Rabbis called it idolatry because when a person is overwhelmed by anger, their rage is their master; They are out of control; a false “god” controls them. Likewise, a person prone to temper and rage has no life because he ruins the relationships around him, everything is infuriating. When we get angry we lose control and in those moments we act with irresponsibility, we say inappropriate things.

The Rambam suggests that anger is allowed only when we are "acting". If anger is needed to shock, or to express the severity of a crime or problematic circumstance, then it can only happen when the person expressing anger is calm inside. It is that loss of control that is so severe.

[Interestingly Rashi says that Moses was meant to "speak, not hit" the rock. That is what we say to children sometimes: "Use your words; don't hit!" Could the violence of the striking of the rock have conveyed the anger that Rambam speaks of?]

Can we have leaders who fly into a rage, and can at the same time lead the nation responsibly or represent God appropriately? This story would suggest that we cannot.

Shabbat Shalom!

(*) It is interesting that though Moses is described as the humblest of all men, we find several instances of Moses anger, explicitly or implicitly. Explicitly, when God’s word is abrogated: Shemot 16:20; Vayikra 10:16; Bamidbar 31:14. Implicitly, his killing the Egyptian and smashing of the tablets.

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