Last week I was stuck in a traffic jam and one driver’s road rage was so intense that I feared a physical attack. It didn’t happen, but I got to thinking about how anger plagues so many of us and how badly it disturbs our relationships, our character and civil discourse.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, pulls the veil off Moses’ rage. It is a famous scene. Moses is carrying the tablets of the law down from Mount Sinai when Joshua tells him of the people’s celebration around the golden calf. As Moses approaches the camp he hears for himself the revelry, his anger is kindled, and with righteous indignation he confronts the people, smashes the tablets, burns the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes the pulverized idol with water, and force-feeds the substance into the gullets of the guilty Israelites. (Exodus 32:15-20).
His rage still boiling over, in the next chapter we read, “Now Moses took the tent and pitched outside the camp.” (Exodus 33:7).
The Jerusalem Talmud (B’chorim 3:3) explains why he pitched the Tent of Meeting so far away from the camp:
“…because he was tired of the people’s constant complaining and criticism. As he would walk around the camp some would say ‘look at his thick neck, his fat legs, he must eat up all our money.’”
Moses moved the tent of meeting out of sight so that those who desired truly to come close to God would have to make the effort to do so.
God, however, appealed to Moses (Midrash Rabbah 45:2):
“I want you to change your mind, go back to the camp, and deal with the people face to face, as it says ‘The Eternal would speak to Moses face to face as one person speaks to another.’” (Exodus 33:11)
We can’t blame Moses for his impatience with the people. He had lived with their obstinacy, distrust and faithlessness since leaving Egypt. However, tradition reminds us that magnanimity of mind, heart and soul, compassion and patience are critical virtues in a leader and that once the leader loses control due to anger or despair, so too do the leader’s moral credibility and authority evaporate.
As a congregational rabbi and leader of a large religious institution, I have learned over more than 35 years of service that the very worst thing I could do is to respond to anyone impatiently and in anger, because when I would do so my credibility is compromised and my moral authority diminished. I believe this is true about leadership in religious institutions, in all kinds of business, in non-profit organizations, in the arts, education, government, politics, and diplomacy.
With this in mind, I have been shocked by the angry, intemperate and hostile accusations leveled against Secretary of State John Kerry by Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, Likud MK and Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis, and especially by Economics Minister and Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett who recently called Secretary Kerry an anti-Semite. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice was quick to respond, and properly so, by defending Secretary Kerry’s integrity, friendship to the state of Israel, and sincere motivations in his peace efforts, as did Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
As if these extremist and intemperate remarks weren’t enough, at the same time an orthodox Israeli Knesset member David Rotem, who serves as the chairman of the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, said that the Reform movement “is not Jewish. It is another religion.” In response Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the North American Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, called on the Israeli government to censure MK Rotem and remove him from his leadership roles.
At the very least, full and sincere apologies from these leaders are in order.
It is my position that a leader of the state of Israel who continuously insults United States officials and dismisses the legitimacy of a major religious movement of the Jewish people should be dismissed from his/her leadership duties.
Tradition says that Moses ultimately lost his dream to enter the Promised Land because in anger at the people he struck a rock with a stick instead of speaking to it as God had commanded him.
The Talmud reminds us that “When a person loses his temper – If he is originally wise, he loses his wisdom, and if he is a prophet, he loses his prophecy.” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 66b).
If Moses could be so diminished by his anger that God would deny him his most cherished dream then so too should leaders of the Israeli government lose their positions when their words are insulting and intemperate.