This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, continues a theme that runs through the entire book of Numbers: discontent and anger. Once again, weary of their desert wanderings, the people 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 beyond the limits of his patience—Moses explodes in anger. After God asks him to verbally command a rock to produce water for the thirsty mob, Moses instead strikes the rock two times with his rod, and proclaims, “Listen rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?!” This outburst of rage carries a steep cost, as God then punishes Moses by decreeing 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. Many commentators suggest that Moses’ sin lies in striking the rock not once but twice. 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 ire 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 fury 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.”
When we seek to master our anger, we might focus on this week’s midah/character trait—menuchat ha-nefesh, or equanimity. This is not to suggest that we should peacefully accept the world’s weight of suffering and injustice. Righteous anger can lead us to essential activism in the service of tikkun olam. But we are better able to accomplish this work when we can maintain a calm and centered soul. As Alan Morinis notes: “Seeking equanimity means achieving an inner equilibrium that is not upset by the ups and downs that are part of every life. We can’t insulate ourselves from life’s trials, but we can prepare for them, and fostering a calm soul readies us to be the kind of people who can and will pass their life tests.”
Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
When your emotions are triggered, recall that ultimate outcomes can’t be predicted or controlled, and return your mind and heart to an even keel.
This will be my final e-Torah for the 5781 cycle. I’ll pick up again in the fall after the Days of Awe, when we return to the book of Genesis.
For anyone who is interested in continuing to learn Mussar, I highly recommend checking out the work of Alan Morinis and the Mussar Institute. You can learn more here: https://mussarinstitute.org/
I look forward to seeing you all when I am back in the office in August and we begin meeting again in person!