Anger is powerful. It is a core emotion, one we all experience. It is a natural part of being human.
When we feel angry, we should pay attention, because it indicates when something is not right. Anger is what alerts us to injustice. It is how we prepare emotionally to respond to a perceived threat.
Uncontrolled anger, however, makes us forget important details, overrides our moral training, and makes us generally unpleasant to be around. It causes us lose our ability to self-monitor and maintain objectivity. Uncontrolled anger, with its partner, irrational fear, is responsible for much of the polarizing behavior in America today.
Anger will lead to Moses being banned from the Promised Land in a few weeks’ Torah portions.
To illustrate this point, the Torah depicts even God slipping into uncontrolled anger. This morning’s reading, Parashat Shelach Lekha, describes the infamous story of the spies, who are sent to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back an advance report.
We enter the story at the moment when God is furious. The Israelites have panicked after listening to the spies’ depressing assessment of their chances against the inhabitants of Canaan.
God is incredulous about the Israelites’ lack of faith. He is frustrated beyond imagination. “Let me strike them down with pestilence and start over with you, Moses!”
This is when Moses shows his true mettle. In his prophetic role, he steps into the breach. “But think about what the other nations will say,” Moses warns. “‘This God of the Israelites did not have the power to finish the job. Since he could not bring them into the land that He promised, He just killed them off in the wilderness.’ Is that how You want to be known?”
That is argument number one for Moses. Argument number two is more personal.
Here it is in Hebrew: וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל־נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר “And now, let the strength of my Lord increase, as you have spoken.” (Numbers 14:17) What is this koach, or strength, that Moses mentions? And when did God speak about it?
ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים:
“Adonai, patient and full of lovingkindness, bearing iniquity and transgression, yet clearing, not clearing, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth [generation].” (Numbers 14:18)
Does this sound familiar? Partially. When is the last time that God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses? At Mount Sinai, during the incident with the Golden Calf. Moses talks God down at that time as well, using similar arguments. While he is on a roll, Moses asks to behold God’s glory. God agrees, and hides Moses in a cleft in a rock and passes the Divine Glory next to him. While passing, God proclaims the thirteen attributes.
In this deja vu moment, Moses repeats God’s words back to Him. He quotes some, but not all, of those attributes. Maybe it will remind God, he thinks, of the last time when really really wanted to kill the Israelites but changed His mind.
Most of the commentators connect the koach, the strength that Moses wants God to increase with the term erekh apayim. Literally, it means, long-nosed. In Hebrew, this is a euphemism for patient. The opposite is charon af, which means the burning nose, or flaring nostrils, a euphemism for anger.
So Moses is appealing for an increase in the relative strength of God’s patience. Or, as Ibn Ezra puts it, that “the attribute of mercy should be victorious over the attribute of judgment to conquer Your anger.”
Anger has led God to forget about His own nature. Moses is trying to awaken Divine compassion, which has become blocked.
Citing a midrash, the commentator Rashi takes it a step further.
When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the Torah, he finds God writing down the Divine attributes. Erekh apayim, Moses sees. Long-nosed, patient. Moses asks: “that is just for the righteous, right?
God corrects him, “Nope, it is for the wicked as well.”
“But should not the wicked be punished?” Moses asks.
“By your life,” God responds, “you are going to need these words one day.”
Today is the day. The entire nation of Israel sins by listening to the ten spies. God wants to obliterate them.
“But God,” Moses pleads. “Didn’t you say that you are erekh apayim, patient?”
The Holy One replies, “I thought you wanted that to be just for the righteous.”
“No, no, no” Moses shakes his head. “You said that it would also be for the wicked.”
Moses concludes his appeal by asking God to forgive the nation’s sin in accordance with the greatness of God’s love.
God responds: סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ – “I forgive just as you have spoken.”
What a wonderful parallel. Moses uses God’s words to remind God to be His best self. And God responds by forgiving, according to Moses’ words.
So was God actually angry? The midrash suggests that the story might have been told this way to teach a lesson about the danger of uncontrolled anger, and to offer a remedy.
The danger is that anger can cause me to forget who I am. What are the values and principles that govern my life, that lead me to be me best self? When I allow myself to be consumed by anger, I lose my way.
The remedy is another person. Moses is the courageous prophet who has the nerve to confront God during God’s moment of rage. To His credit, God accepts the intervention and snaps back, forgiving the Israelites.
I need to have people in my life who I can trust to step into the breach and tell me when I have lost my way. And I should have the courage to be that person for someone else. And most importantly, I should be receptive to hearing the voice of someone who has the courage to tell me, with love, when I am being an idiot.