Monday, June 27, 2011
Managing Anger (Portion Chukat)
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, continues a theme that runs through the entire book of Numbers: discontent and rebellion. Once again, weary of their desert wanderings, the people complain and quarrel with their leaders. They repeat their whiny wilderness refrain: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt into this wretched place?” This time—pushed past even his generous limits of patience—Moses explodes in anger. After God asks him to verbally command a rock to miraculously produce water for the thirsty mob, Moses instead strikes the rock with his rod, two times, and proclaims, “Listen rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” [Numbers 20:19] This outburst of rage carries a steep cost, as God then punishes Moses severely, announcing that he will die before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
The harshness of this sentence, which seems disproportionate for a single temper tantrum [and even that only after years of ingratitude and abuse at the hands of those he is asked to lead], prompts a great deal of commentary. Most commentators suggest that Moses’ sin lies in striking the rock not one but two times. In other words, it is natural and reasonable to get angry; the problem is Moses’ failure to control his temper after expressing his initial surge of anger with the first strike.
In his book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points to three paths toward anger management: humility, compassion, and charity. Humility reminds us that rage is often motivated by narcissism: we tend to get angry when we do not get our way. Compassion can generate empathy for those who provoke us and, in the process, diminish our ire toward them. As Rabbi Telushkin notes, “Pity and rage do not go together. You cannot be angry at someone for whom you feel sorry.” Finally, as the late medieval Jewish ethical treatise Reishit Chochmah suggests, “If you are trying to achieve greater control over your anger, you should decide on a sum of money that you will give to charity if you lose your temper unfairly.”
There are, of course, countless other techniques for angry management, from meditation and “time outs” to physical exercise and stress relief. Our challenge is to identify those that work best for us and to use them consistently. It all begins with self-awareness, with knowing our emotional state and then learning to manage it. While it is no sin to feel and express anger, uncontrolled wrath is a terribly destructive state. This week, try to be extra aware of when you feel anger, and diligent in managing it.
Note: I will not be doing this e-Torah column during the month of July. But of course the Torah does not stop during this time. I encourage you to continue reading and learning. For starters, check out “Ten Minutes of Torah” from the Union for Reform Judaism at www.urj.org