Hopefully, we haven't gone on a rampage and destroyed objects or hurt people. Maybe we have. And hopefully, if our anger has hurt something or someone, we've found it within ourselves, in the best of our awareness and capabilities at the time, to own our emotions and apologize for the harm that we've caused.
But what if instead of apologizing for our anger, suppressing or squelching it to maintain control, we owned our anger, among the panoply of other very human, and very necessary emotions that we feel in our lives? Are there times when we are entitled to our anger, when our anger is necessary, justified, and warranted? Are there times when anger shouldn't be minimized or dismissed, but in the case, perhaps, of teaching a powerful lesson, anger should be welcomed?
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa, God gets angry at the Israelites, really angry. Seeing that the Israelites have constructed a golden calf, God says to Moses, "I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation." The notion of God's blazing anger is represented with the Hebrew phrase va-yichar api va-hem v'achaleim - meaning literally that God's nostrils flared toward the people and God wanted to eat them, one might assume, alive. Yikes.
Yet something strange, and admittedly, rather discomforting, happens in the interchange between Moses and God. Moses responds by trying to soothe God, telling God, "don't feel that way," by appealing to God's ego with flattery, reminding God, "Now, now God. What will the Egyptians say if you freed the Israelites only to take them into the wilderness to kill them?" Moses stresses the covenant that God established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, Moses is celebrated for defending the people, for standing between God and the Israelites, for if Moses hadn't stepped in to play hero, the Israelites would not have survived.
But anthropopathy, the assignment of human emotions to non-human entities like God, is a valuable teaching tool. And while we might laud Moses as the grand peacemaker, his actions also bespeak a level of minimization. We can imagine God saying, "I brought these people out of slavery, I created marvels and miracles for them, I gave them My law, and they thank Me by building a Golden Calf?" What would the scene look like, if instead of Moses trying to comfort God, instead Moses just said, "Yes, God, You too have a right to your anger. Feel your anger and your rage. Feel your heartbreak, disappointment and sadness. And when You're ready, only when You're ready, let's figure out the best way of addressing this situation together."
But Moses doesn't say this. He takes matters, and the tablets into his own hand, and when he descends from the mountain, "he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it." And when Aaron witnesses Moses' actions, Aaron says, "Let not my lord be enraged." Moses attempts to minimize God's anger, only to become angry himself, and to have Aaron try to step in and minimize his own outburst!
Of further interest is the understanding that this scene in the Torah involves three men -- Moses, Aaron, and the God created by male authors. Male discomfort with the need to feel, express, and even minimize strong emotion in others, especially women, is rather evident in this text. Speaking to the relationship between men and women and the presence of anger, Dr. Avrum Weiss explains, "Men are often uncomfortable with any expression of strong feelings...When their wives/partners are upset, most men go quickly into "fix it" mode, believing it is their responsibility to soothe their partners and reestablish equilibrium." Here in the Torah, we have three "men" acting out, all who say to one another, "Now, now, your anger isn't justified. Don't feel that way!"
Maybe you too have been there. Has anyone ever said to you, "Don't feel angry," or "Don't feel that way?" Have you, perhaps regrettably, been the person who has said to someone else, those exact words, in an effort to minimize what they are feeling, and in the process, make yourself feel better? We might be scared of another person's reaction, or we might be looking to exonerate ourselves from any wrongdoing or guilt that we might bear for our own actions. Anger is an uncomfortable and unsettling emotion. And as demonstrated by how Moses summarily orders the execution of three thousand Israelites in the camp, anger can often have drastic consequences.
But anger is also vital. Getting angry is human. We are taught in the book of Genesis that we are created in the Divine image. And if God gets angry, then wouldn't logic allow for humans, created in the Divine image, to feel anger as well? In the Babylonian Talmud, Reish Lakish acknowledges that God celebrated Moses' shattering of the tablets, even saying yishar koch'cha she-shibarta, "yasher koach," may you have strength for doing so! 11th century commentator Rashi finishes his commentary on the Bible teaching that Moses' breaking of the tablets is a sign of his greatness.
Yes. A display of anger, feeling our own anger, can be critically important and useful. And no one, no one, has a right to take that emotion away from us. And we don't have the right to rob another person of feeling their anger and rage. There is a difference between expressing ourselves safely and damaging another person. But if we are not willing to allow ourselves to feel anger, people might as well walk right over us.
Perhaps you've been following the situation at the border, wondering why a state of emergency is being declared, or why government workers were furloughed for five weeks. Does the American political situation make you angry?
What about Israel? This week, Prime Minister Netanyahu "courted Otzmah Yehudit -- Jewish Power" to join the right-wing Jewish Home party in the coming elections, and to offer Knesset Member Betzalel Smutrich to become Minister of Education. Rabbi Josh Weinberg explains, "The young firebrand of annexation and promoter of separate labor and delivery hospital wings for Jews and Arabs could potentially be responsible for educating Israel's youth."
Are you following the news in France, where President Macron has declared that anti-Semitism in France is the worst that it has been since World War II? Do these actions make you angry, upset, or enraged? Welcome to the club. Perhaps our anger can be channeled into useful attempts to write letters, protest, advocate, and stand for our principles as Americans, and as Jews. Not feeling anger would be a denial of an important piece of our humanity.
Consider, the personal words of Kyos Featherdancing, a Native American woman who works as a landscaper, chef, and healer. Abused by men, including her father, she writes, "A lot of people believe forgiveness is the ultimate healing...The man doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. I deserve my forgiveness. What I need to do is get...on with being right where I’m at with my anger." Speaking further to her healing journey and personal life, she says, "If you’re looking to forgiveness as this goal, then you’re still believing that lie that keeps you under control...As far as freeing myself, I freed myself by saying, “Get out. I don’t want you and I will not be ruled by you, and I will not let you overwhelm my life.”
Sometimes anger is necessary and sometimes anger is exactly what we need to feel, in order to process having been hurt, in order to heal, or even in order to empower ourselves to make changes in our lives, and also bring lasting change to the world.
But you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
Exactly. That's the point. We're not supposed to like one another or even like ourselves all the time. We're not meant to journey through life with every person we meet. How we learn and grow from our most painful and angry moments, and also, from the actions of others, can show us a life that is more resplendent than we ever knew, a life where we are able to let the fullness of human emotion be what it is.
This is my own understanding and interpretation of the passage. No source was used for this idea. It is a conclusion that I am reaching on my own.
Weekly E-mail from ARZA, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, "A Plague on Our House," received 21 February 2019.
Dr. Ellen Bass, The Courage to Heal, Kindle Locations 12133-12138.