What do you do when you get angry? How do you handle it? The answer to that question will say a lot about you.
Let me read you a story about a young girl who was writing a paper for school. She asked her father, “Dad, what’s the difference between anger and exasperation?”
The father replied, “It’s mostly a matter of degree. Let me show you what I mean.”
With that, the father went to the telephone and dialed a number at random. To the man who answered the phone, he said, “Hello, is Melvin there?”
The man answered, “There’s no one living here named Melvin. Why don’t you learn to look up numbers before you dial them?”
“See,” said the father to his daughter. “That man was not a bit happy with our call. He was probably very busy with something, and we annoyed him. Now watch…”
The father dialed the same number again. “Hello, is Melvin there?” asked the father.
“Now look here!” came the heated reply. “You just called this number, and I told you that there is no Melvin here! You’ve got a lot of nerve calling again!” The receiver was slammed down hard.
The father turned to his daughter and said, “You see, that was anger. Now I’ll show you what exasperation means.”
He dialed the same number, and a violent voice roared, “HELLO!”
The father calmly said, “Hello, this is Melvin. Have there been any calls for me?”
Exasperation and anger seem to play a prominent role in today’s Torah reading.
Rabi Arthur Lavinsky tells the story of his daughter Shira who worked one summer as a cashier at grocery store. One day she told him: After ringing up an order, and bagging the groceries, customers would then say, “Would you mind putting that into PAPER bags?”
She said, “No problem,” and started the transfer.
Then they’d say, “Would you mind double bagging?”
“No problem,” was her response.
Then they said, “Maybe you can just put the packed plastic bags INSIDE of the paper bags.”
Once again she consented. Then after almost everything was completed, the customer would say, “Oh, don’t bother dear.”
“But you know what Abba? I never lose my temper with anyone. I just serve them and smile.”
Rabbi Lavinsky then asked her, “Shira, that’s great! You kept your cool. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, you might be able to take that skill home with you? Do you think that when Imma and I tell you something that you don’t quite feel like doing that you can simply comply and smile and never lose your temper?”
She giggled and said, “No Abba. I don’t have to do that at home because you know that I love you. If I lose my temper at work, they’ll fire me. What can YOU do to me?”
It’s true that we treat the ones we love differently than others. But I can’t help but think that sometimes we say and do things out of anger to the ones we love that we would never say or do to complete strangers.
The story in today’s Torah portion that is so difficult to understand is the dismissal of Moses as the leader of Israel. Okay, he was given notice; he wasn’t fired right away, but he was told that he would not enter the Promised Land; this after dealing with a contentious nation for 40 years. It hardly seems fair.
OK, Moses may not have followed Gd’s instructions perfectly, but what did he do to deserve such a harsh punishment? Yes he struck the rock. But there was no water in the desert, the people were thirsty, and that’s why they complained and rebelled. Moses and Aaron prayed to Gd, so Gd commands Moses to talk to a rock from which water would flow. But does Moses listen? Confronted by the complainers, instead of talking to rock he strikes it—not once, but twice!
I don’t know about you, but this seems like a pretty harsh punishment for someone who had served Gd and Israel in such an exemplary fashion for so long.
There are several explanations in our commentaries. Rashi says that Moses was punished because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Ibn Ezra says it was because he hit the rock twice. While Maimonides suggests it was because he lost his temper and angrily called the people a bunch of rebels. Even when you have unquestionable credentials like Moses, you don’t have the latitude to lash out at others. A leader can ill afford the lack of judgment and inflamed emotions that most of us experience from time to time behind closed doors.
Is this fair? Probably not. I wouldn’t want to be judged so harshly. But there were special circumstances here. How many times did Moses strike the rock? Twice! Had he done it once, perhaps Gd could have forgiven a moment of anger, but the fact that he repeated his action; the fact that he struck the rock a 2nd time was his undoing. Usually, when we make a mistake--especially a really big mistake—we know it right away. We feel it in our gut. We recoil and try to pull back. Moses didn’t.
Moses clearly had a problem with anger and this was not the 1st time. When we 1st meet him in Egypt, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, and goes ballistic and kills him.
The next day Moses goes out again and he sees 2 Hebrews fighting, and, instead of minding his own business, he tries to break them up. They turn on him and they say: “Who made you a boss over us?” And Moses has to run for his life.
Next we find Moses arriving in Midian and he sees a group of shepherds mistreating the daughters of Yitro, and, instead of minding his own business, he gets involved and drives them away.
When he comes down from Mt. Sinai and sees the people dancing around the golden calf, he really loses it. He smashes to pieces the tablets of the 10 Commandment—the holiest objects that ever were. After yelling at his brother Aaron for making the calf, he takes a sword and calls for the Levites to join him in punishing those who worshipped the golden calf. Moses is clearly furious. He gives in to his temper and takes action. No matter how smart you may be, no matter how learned you may be, if you lose your temper, your judgment suffers.
So how should we handle our anger? The Torah says that we should emulate Gd and be one who is erech apayim, “slow to anger.” That means we can get angry when it’s appropriate to be angry—but not hastily, not impetuously, not without 1st giving some thought to the matter. 1st, we must find out what the facts are. We must make sure that we’re not judging without knowing all the circumstances. Being “slow to anger” means not bursting out with an accusation and then finding out afterwards that you misjudged and that the person whom you were angry at is really innocent.
How many times have we all done that? He walked by and didn’t even say hello??? And then we find out what was going on in his life at that moment and why he was so preoccupied. He didn’t give as much to this charity as I thought he should??? And then we find out what other financial burdens he was carrying and we’re embarrassed at having misjudged him.
If Moses had been slow to anger, had he stopped to think and realized that they were justified in demanding water—because no one can live for long without it—he might not have called them “rebels” and thereby lost his position as their leader.
It’s all right to get angry. It’s sometimes even a mitzvah to get angry. Be angry at injustice and poverty and evil. But no one should get angry quickly. We should be slow to anger. Do you know what the Hebrew expression for being slow to anger is? Erech apayim. Erech in this context means “slow” and apayim comes from the word af, which literally means, “nostril.” Erech apayim literally means, “be slow to flare your nostrils.” Slow down before you get too hot.
A husband asks his wife: “When I get mad at you, you never fight back. How do you control your anger?”
“I clean the toilet bowl.”
“How does that help?” asks the husband.
“I use your toothbrush!”
Tomorrow is Father’s Day and I’ll brush my teeth with confidence. I think this is a great lesson for all us fathers to take to heart—that we learn from the anger of Moses and strive to be an erech apayim like Gd. May we learn to slow down and not to fly off the handle, not to go ballistic, not to lose it, but to be patient and slow to anger instead. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis