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Anger Gets in the Way

  • Anger Gets in the Way

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and it is what was given to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Eternal. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." And Aaron spoke to Moses, "See, this day they brought their purgation offering and their burnt offering before the Eternal, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten purgation offering today, would the Eternal have approved?" And when Moses heard this, he approved. (Leviticus 10:16-20)

D'var Torah

Moses does have a temper! This parashah, Sh'mini , is not the first place where we witness Moses's anger. We encounter his fury a number of times within the opening chapters of Exodus: when he kills the Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12), when he reproaches his kinsman (Exodus 2:13), and when he defends Jethro's daughters from the shepherds (Exodus 2:17). These episodes provide insight into Moses's character. It appears that he is sharp-tongued and easily provoked. Because of this, is it not surprising that Moses becomes angry. It is not the first time we come across his wrath, nor will it be the last.

Some of our commentators try to justify Moses's behavior. They point out that Moses becomes angry upon seeing any of the following three things: an apparent injustice or violation of the law, inadequate fulfillment of a task, or lack of faith in God. Based on this, it would seem that Moses's passion is to right the wrongs he witnesses and that his anger is more of an expression of outrage than of pure rage. But is that the case here? Is Moses's anger at Aaron and his sons justified?

The answer is no.

This week's portion begins with a tragedy. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, are killed due to the "alien fire" they present as an offering to God (Leviticus 10:1-2). Yet Moses forbids Aaron and his surviving sons to mourn their deaths. He commands them to proceed with the rites of the ordination ceremony. He reasons that by continuing on with the ritual correctly, other such travesties will be avoided (Leviticus 10:6).

When Moses realizes that the procedures have not been followed according to his instructions, he becomes furious. He demands to know why Eleazar and Ithamar have not heeded his words. All he can think about is the erroneous performance of the ritual, and his anger clouds his judgment. He chastises his nephews and brother for failing to do their job, when in reality it is he who is in the wrong.

How so? In his anger, Moses forgets the laws of mourning. Aaron and his sons could continue with the rituals of the occasion as they were asked to do. But they could not eat of the sacrifice, for as onanim , "mourners," they had to wait until their loved ones were buried. Their failure to complete their task, then, was not due to negligence; rather it was because of their status as mourners.

Once reminded of this, Moses "approves." In other words, he understands that the error is his. He speaks to the entire camp of Israel and says, "I made an error in the law, and Aaron, my brother, came and set me straight" (Vayikra Rabbah 13:1)

It may seem odd that Moses's mistake is so openly revealed in the text. And yet it is not surprising that Moses is held accountable for allowing his temper to get out of control. There is a reason that he is not let off the hook for his behavior. Moses is meant to be an example. By not omitting the shortcomings of an important figure such as Moses, we are able to learn from his mistakes.

Moses's anger teaches us about our own. It leads us to ask about ourselves: How often do we let our own anger get in the way of our judgment?

When our anger blinds us to the reality around us, we discover, just as Moses did, that misdirected anger can alienate the people around us. Anger can ruin our relationships and even ourselves if we let it. Yet our tradition cautions us not to let this happen. We learn that it is neither good nor healthy to let our anger get the best of us. We are told to "remove anger from your heart" (Ecclesiastes 11:10) and that "a person must train himself or herself to be gentle" (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 4a). To do so means to be in control of our emotions. In that way, we practice the midah or "virtue" of erech apayim , of being "slow to anger," of not letting our anger get the best of us.

What does it mean to be slow to anger? It does not mean denying our anger. Rather it implies learning to be less reactive, to literally slow our anger down. It encourages us to avoid '"flying off the handle," "losing it," or "going ballistic." Being slow to anger means not bursting out with hurtful accusations or exploding with rage. Slow to anger means just that-taking time before reacting, and attempting to respond in an appropriate way.

If Moses had been slow to anger, he might not have erred in judgment. He might have remembered the laws of mourning and understood why Aaron and his sons acted as they did. He might have saved himself the embarrassment of admitting to the entire community that he was in the wrong. Who knows what disasters we can avoid if we become slow to anger? If we can train ourselves to slow down, we can remove the anger from our hearts.

By the Way

  • Better to be slow to anger than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city. (Proverbs 16:32)
  • Anybody can become angry-that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way-that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. (Aristotle)
  • In the midst of great joy, do not promise anyone anything. In the midst of great anger, do not answer anyone's letter. (Chinese proverb)

Your Guide

  1. Do you agree with the statement from Proverbs? Does a desire for things or status ever get in the way of our ability to control our feelings?
  2. Aristotle suggests that there is an art to being angry. Is there a time or place when getting angry is in fact the appropriate reaction? How does one determine when anger is indeed warranted?
  3. How do our emotions affect our actions? Why is it not a good idea to make promises while feeling joy or to answer a letter when angry?

Jessica E. Locketz is the Associate Rabbi and Temple Educator at Temple Emanuel of South Hills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

4/02/2005
Reference Materials: 

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636