Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, loses his temper at least three times in the Torah. One happens in parashat Huqqat following the death of his sister Miriam, who (the midrash tells us) always had access to water in the desert:
The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord!” Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the Lord appeared to them, and 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 and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Moses took the rod from the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
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.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:2-12)
While commentators propose a range of theories about why Moshe is punished, the prevailing opinion is that it was due to his anger.
We are in a particularly angry moment here in America, and all the more so in Pittsburgh, given recent events. But anger is not a strategy for change; it is a strong motivator, but not an effective path forward. The 15th-century mussar (ethical) text Orhot Tzaddiqim, whose author’s name is unknown, tell us the following:
Orhot Tzaddiqim (15th century German mussar / ethical text) 12:13-14
(13) Anger leads to mistakes. Who is a greater man than Moses, our teacher? Moses, upon him be peace, was angry in three places, and he made what would generally be termed “mistakes.” … And so, you can understand that if these things happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, when he was angry, what can happen to fools who are angry! And therefore Solomon said, “Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry” (Eccl. 7:9).
הכעס מביא לידי טעות; מי לנו גדול ממשה רבינו עליו השלום, שכעס בשלושה מקומות ובא לכלל טעות:… מלמד שנשתכחה הלכה ממשה (ויקרא רבה יג א). ועתה הבן: אם כך הגיע למשה רבינו עליו השלום, מה יגיע לכסילים הכועסים? ולכך אמר שלמה (קהלת ז ט): “אל תבהל ברוחך לכעוס”.
|(14) And you must be very careful not to do damage in your anger, for our Rabbis said : “He who rends his garments, breaks his utensils in his wrath and scatters his money should be in your eyes like one who worships idols” (Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 105b). For this is the artful craft of the Evil Desire. Today he says to a man, “Do thus.” And on the morrow he says to him, “Go ahead and serve idols.” And the man goes and serves.||
והיזהר בה מאוד, שלא תעשה שום קלקול מתוך כעסך. כי אמרו רבותינו (שבת קה ב): המקרע בגדיו, והמפזר מעותיו, והמשבר כלים בחמתו – יהא בעיניך כאילו עובד עבודה זרה. שכך אומנותו של יצר הרע: היום אומר לו “עשה כך”, ולמחר אומר לו “עשה כך”, עד שאומר לו “עבוד עבודה”זרה” והולך ועושה.
It is Moshe’s anger that leads him astray; acting on our anger, suggests the author of Orhot Tzaddiqim, ultimately leads us to avodah zarah / idolatry, one of the greatest prohibitions of the Torah and of Judaism.
The Conflict Dynamics Profile* (conflictdynamics.org) lists a series of behaviors to which we often resort in times of conflict. These are the destructive behaviors, a few of which Moshe is guilty in this episode:
- Winning at All Costs – Arguing vigorously for your own position and trying to win at all costs.
- Displaying Anger – Expressing anger, raising your voice, and using harsh, angry words.
- Demeaning Others – Laughing at the other person, ridiculing the other’s ideas, and using sarcasm.
- Retaliating – Obstructing the other person, retaliating against the other, and trying to get revenge.
- Avoiding – Avoiding or ignoring the other person, and acting distant and aloof.
- Yielding – Giving in to the other person in order to avoid further conflict.
- Hiding Emotions – Concealing your true emotions even though feeling upset.
- Self-Criticizing – Replaying the incident over in your mind, and criticizing yourself for not handling it better.
So how do we respond constructively to conflict? Here are some suggested strategies:
- Perspective Taking – Putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand that person’s point of view.
- Creating Solutions – Brainstorming with the other person, asking questions, and trying to create solutions to the problem.
- Expressing Emotions – Talking honestly with the other person and expressing your thoughts and feelings.
- Reaching Out – Reaching out to the other person, making the first move, and trying to make amends.
- Reflective Thinking – Analyzing the situation, weighing the pros and cons, and thinking about the best response.
- Delay Responding – Waiting things out, letting matters settle down, or taking a “time out” when emotions are running high.
- Adapting – Staying flexible, and trying to make the best of the situation.
Had Moshe been able to manage his own anger, and channel it into one of the constructive strategies above, his outcome might have been different. And so too with us.
Here’s an idea: print out the destructive and constructive responses above, and post them on your refrigerator or bulletin board. You can use these to help improve your own personal relationships, and even society as a whole.
If we are to get past this angry moment, we will have to think constructively, and not merely act out of anger.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Based on a discussion at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/23/18.)
*Thanks to Bob Leventhal of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Sulam for Emerging Leaders program for bringing the Conflict Dynamics Profile to my attention.