Recently, I found myself sitting in a traffic jam in my supermarket’s parking lot. One driver decided (wrongly) that I was the one holding up movement, and so he rolled down his window and with a vulgar gesture cursed me crudely with such venom that I feared he was going to get out of his car and attack me. I rolled up my windows and didn’t look at him! He went away, thank God.
Of course, his outburst had nothing to do with me. I have no idea why he was so angry. However, I got to thinking about how much rage plagues common discourse today, in our relationships with family, friends and colleagues, with people we don’t know, within the Jewish community, and between peoples and nations.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, shines a light on Moses’ rage at his people. He had brought the tablets of the law down from Mount Sinai and en route learned from Joshua that the people were celebrating around a golden calf. As he descended the mountain he heard for himself the revelry and became enraged.
After all God had done for the people and after all he had done to facilitate God’s will in their redemption, the people were short-sighted and ungrateful. With righteous indignation Moses smashed the tablets, burned the golden calf, ground it to powder, mixed it with water, and force-fed the substance to the guilty Israelites. (Exodus 32:15-20)
Moses’ indignation went unabated and we read in the next chapter: “Now Moses would take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp.” (Exodus 33:7)
Rabbi Menachem Sachs, quoting from the Jerusalem Talmud (B’chorim 3:3), explained why Moses pitched the Tent of Meeting so far away:
“…because he was tired of the people’s constant complaining and criticism. As Moses walked around the camp some would say ‘look at his thick neck, his fat legs – he must eat up all our money.’”
Insulted and exasperated, Moses moved the tent out of the people’s sight so that only those who really wanted to draw near to God would have to deliberately choose to do so and then make the effort to come to the meeting tent.
Watching disapprovingly, God 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 panim el panim – face to face, as one person speaks to another.’” (Exodus 33:11)
We can’t blame Moses for his weariness and impatience with the people. He had suffered their obstinacy since leaving Egypt. He was old and tired, and had had enough.
Tradition, however, reminds us that leading a community while angry is no way to lead. Once leaders lose their temper publicly and become impatient with the people whom they lead, they lose not just whatever argument is immediately before them, but the faith of the people in their leadership.
As a congregational rabbi and leader of a large religious institution, I’ve learned over a period of more than 35 years that the very worst thing a leader can ever do is to respond to individuals, to the community, to staff, and to strangers with impatience, condescension and anger. This is true in religious institutions and education most especially, but in business, non-profits, the arts, politics, diplomacy, and government as well.
Tradition says that Moses lost the right to enter the Promised Land when he hit the rock with his stick out of anger at the people, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded him (Numbers 20:11).
No less an equivalent consequence should be exacted from trusted leadership when they lose control, condescend, humiliate, and sow division amongst those they lead.
The Talmud says, “If a person loses his temper – If he is originally wise, he loses his wisdom, and if he is a prophet, he loses his prophecy.” (Bavli, Pesachim 66b).
Here are a few additional reflections about anger worth noting:
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
“When angry you will make the best speech you ever regret.”
-William Ury, American author, academic, anthropologist, and negotiation expert
“When the spirit of anger asserts itself over a person, the trait of mercy flees and cruelty takes over to shatter and destroy.”
-Orchot Tzaddikim, 15th century Germany