Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Ki Tisa

In one of the most engaging theologically charged episodes in the Torah, Moses and God share time atop Mt. Sinai preparing and detailing the “10 Commandments.” God notices that the people down below are anxious. Moses has been gone for 40 days. No one knows what has become of him. Aaron is doing his best to keep calm in the camp, but the people need a “pep rally,” a reminder to stay faithful.

They turned to God. Or, at least, to the form of God as they had known for nearly four hundred years enslaved in Egypt. They built the Golden Calf. They took anything they had of value and gave it to God. Please remember that Moses got all the rules that make their actions blasphemous while away with God. They don’t yet know that what they are doing is wrong. All they know is that they camped in the middle of nowhere, their leader is absent, and they are afraid.

Atop the mountain, God tells Moses that his people are rebelling and turned to evil ways. God threatens to wipe them out and start over with Moses. Moses “gets in God’s face,” recalling that these are God’s people, that God freed them and led them to the wilderness. God had promised the ancestors that these people would be a great nation. Most importantly, Moses reminded God that killing Israel after killing Egypt to free them would call God’s integrity and love into question. The most impactful moment came as Moses further admonished God that if God could break the divine promise to the ancestors, wiping these people out, Moses was not willing to trust God to “start over.” God changed God’s mind and turned from anger.

Even God cannot justify being angry. As betrayed as God may have felt, one could not justify the angry response that Moses had to diffuse. Proverbs tells us that being slow to anger is righteous (16:32). Maimonides wrote that one who becomes angry might as well be worshipping idols.

None of us are immune from getting angry, not even God. The same Moses who brings God back from the abyss will come down the mountain and smash the tablets – angry at the people. In another moment, as he takes his anger out on a rock, God responded by keeping him from entering the land of Israel.

That said, anger is natural and organic – and sometimes, necessary. As with everything in our tradition, whether anger is okay or not, the correct answer is, “It depends.”

Rav Kook taught that we have a right to be angry when hurt or demeaned. We need to vent and find ways to express our pain. For Rav Kook, it would seem that while anger is okay, living in anger and/or acting out of anger is never okay.

But then, we have to wrestle with the world of brutal injustice. If we are paying attention, we cannot help but be angry. Oddly, whichever side one finds himself/herself politically, we seem to agree on only one thing – we are angry. That anger fuels protests, impels people to speak out where they might never have before, and dedicate time and energy to ending the injustice in ways that were otherwise spent on more personal needs and wants.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (zt”l) taught, “When someone in authority displays anger, the person or group it is directed against is in danger … making the situation worse, not better. It is a weapon to be used only rarely, but sometimes it is the only way.”

The Bible is a political document. It makes statements and teaches lessons that should grab our attention and compel our beings into action. The conundrum we face, though, is that throwing Biblical texts at each other only serves to deeply muddy the waters. The narrative where Shifra and Puah stand up to the hard-hearted Pharaoh is a call for defiance. In any dispute, one can imagine each side referring to the other as Pharaoh. So, how do we know which answer is better? I would argue that the one that offers dignity to more people and protects the special interests of fewer people. How do we know which is which? I could leave it with, “It depends,” but no. The challenge is to remember that our anger is most often triggered when confronted by behaviors we don’t understand. Perhaps the most appropriate response to anger is a commitment to get to know someone well enough, to understand why he/she did that which angered you.

Only in committing to this empathetic response can we ever resolve conflict. So long as I have no idea why you do what you do, my response to your actions will always trigger the further devolution of our relationship. Remember – if someone is so upset that he/she lashes out, more times than not, it comes from a painful experience or a fear-based lack of understanding. It becomes our job to ensure human dignity and return the conversation to the essential values of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.