Our family was getting ready for a vacation and it had taken the better part of the morning to get the last-minute packing done. Expectations of an early departure were frustrated and my parents were looking at each other with anger and blame. While they struggled with and against each other to get our family out of our New York City apartment, into the car, and out onto the road, the emotional temperature was rising.
I remember sitting in the back seat of our 1963 Mercury Comet sedan, illegally parked on the corner of East 82nd and Madison, with all the luggage finally stowed in the trunk. My father was in the driver's seat, my sister sitting next to me, and we were waiting for my mother to emerge from the apartment building so we could begin the long drive. It was hot, early summer. The traffic was noisy. My father — usually a calm and quiet man — was starting to fume with impatience. After ten minutes of waiting, finally…
My father slammed his hand on the horn at the center of the steering wheel. It blasted. Unexpectedly, though, it didn't stop when he lifted his hand. In his anger, he had broken the horn and it just kept going in one, long, loud drone. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
At first, my sister and I were terrified. We had never seen our father so angry, and we imagined that the blaring horn would only make him angrier. Only, that didn't happen. We were surprised — and relieved — when our father started to laugh. Somehow, he had enough presence in that moment to recognize the ridiculousness of the situation.
I still remember that day sometimes when I face stressful situations. I remember how just surrendering to the absurdity of my mounting frustration can help me release tension and escape the vicious circle of anger that feeds on itself. I remember also, though, the terror I felt that day when I saw my father lose control.
There is a moment in this week's Torah portion (Chukat) that feels similar to me. Moses had spent months listening to the Israelites' unending griping. They complained about how much they missed Egypt, the land where they had been slaves. They whined about how Moses told them what to do all the time, even though they knew that God spoke directly to him. They even muttered against the miraculous manna that fell from the sky and kept them alive. On top of all of the stress generated by all the complaining, Moses also was grieving for the loss of his sister Miriam who had just died.
You can sense in the story that Moses was about to lose his cool. When the Israelites came to him complaining, once again, about the lack of water, something in Moses just went…snap.
God had told Moses to talk to a certain rock and command it to give water. The water, God said, would slake the Israelites' thirst. But Moses didn't do that. Instead of speaking to the rock, he let his anger show and he spoke derisively to the Israelites. He said, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). Moses then slammed the rock twice with his rod. The water flowed and did not stop until every Israelite and every animal belonging to them was satisfied. The people were relieved and the muttering campaign against Moses was stifled for the moment, but something else was broken.
After the incident at the rock, God spoke to Moses and told him, "Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctity Me in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). God did not like the way that Moses lost his temper in front of the Israelites and the consequences for Moses were severe. God told Moses that he would not enter the land of Israel, even after leading the Israelites there for forty years.
It seems odd to me that God said that Moses did not show faith. In what way could that be true? Is losing self-control in anger a form of "losing faith"?
The science of psychology teaches us that human beings have far more control over their emotional impulses than any other creature. Our brains' huge frontal lobes allow us to see beyond the present moment and to plan for the future. That includes the ability to find better solutions for frustrating situations than aggressive, angry behavior.
Using our ability for impulse control is, in many ways, what Jewish law is all about. We practice impulse control over our appetites through the laws of kashrut. We discipline our impulse toward greed through acts of tzedakah. We moderate our impulse to anger by practicing patience, compassion toward others, and self-compassion. If we show our faith in God by adhering to dietary laws and the laws that command generosity to those in need, certainly, we also keep the faith by exercising restraint in our anger.
Proverbs teaches, "It is better to be slow to anger than to be mighty, and one who has self-control is better than one who conquers a city" (16:32). The real might is self-discipline. The real conquest is the conquest over oneself.
And here is another reason for practicing self-restraint. Moments of uncontrolled anger can be powerfully destructive. We do not need the example of Moses who lost his chance to enter the Land of Israel. Our prisons are filled with people who did something terrible in a fit of rage. When we begin to see red, we shut off our frontal lobes and lose the ability to see beyond the present moment. The hurt and harm we can do in such a moment can last forever with terrifying consequences.
We can find greater joy and fulfillment in life by developing the techniques of channeling our anger. Doing so does not require that we become all-forgiving saints or emotionless Vulcans. It just requires practicing some proven techniques — deep breaths when the temperature starts to rise, clear statements about what we are feeling and what we want, walking away from a difficult situation before we blow our top, and even, as my father taught me, the ability to laugh at oneself.
We sanctify God and we sanctify our own lives when we learn to be the masters of our own minds. The happiness we find in controlling our own impulses is more satisfying and more lasting than any momentary satisfaction we might feel when we snap in explosive anger.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Vayetze: Righteous Anger
Ki Tisa: Moses, Anger and Parenting