Anger is one of the most difficult and destructive of human emotions. More than just a matter of character, it is antithetical to Torah, whose ways are “ways of pleasantness and peace”. This is why it is so important to distance ourselves from anger. We need to express our Judaism in a way that is gentle and kind, peaceful and pleasant.
Anger is one of the most difficult and destructive of human emotions. In this week’s parsha, we see how even Moses, the greatest of all Jewish leaders, battled to overcome it. The parsha relates how Elazar, the son of Aaron – and his successor as High Priest – taught the laws of kashering vessels to the Jewish people.
It is unusual that Elazar was given this task; Moses, after all, was the one who typically transmitted the laws of the Torah. Rashi1 has a surprising explanation – citing from the Midrash2 he says that Moses had actually forgotten these particular laws.
How could Moses, the leader and teacher of the Jewish people, who communicated directly with G-d, forget anything?
The clue to unravelling this mystery is found in an earlier verse,3 which describes how Moses “became angry with the [Jewish] soldiers” after they failed to properly carry out the battle plan during a battle with the Midianites.
From here, the Talmud4 draws an important principle: “Anyone who becomes angry, if he is a Torah scholar, his wisdom departs from him; and if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him.”
We see from here that even someone like Moses, at his level of greatness, was subject to the destructive forces of anger, and lost a portion of his Torah knowledge as a result.
Torah is living wisdom
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz,5 the Mir Rosh Yeshiva, explains that Torah is not like any other wisdom; it is wisdom that we integrate into our lives and our characters – it is living wisdom rather than something purely intellectual and academic.
He illustrates this with a teaching from the Talmud,6 which says that while we are obliged to accord great honour to a Torah scholar, nevertheless, the Torah scholar is allowed to waive this honour. We would think, says the Talmud, that the honour belongs to the Torah, rather than to the Torah scholar in their personal capacity, and therefore the honour wouldn’t be theirs to waive. And yet, they are allowed to waive it – because the Torah they’ve learnt has become part of them. They own it, and therefore waiving this honour is at their own discretion.
What Rav Shmuelevitz is teaching us is that the more Torah someone learns, and the more deeply they delve into its great wisdom, the more it becomes part of who that person is. A true Torah scholar is someone who lives the Torah they’ve learnt, who embodies it in every way. If a Torah scholar, even someone like Moses, displays anger – a trait that goes against the Torah – then they aren’t embodying what they’ve learnt; they haven’t really learnt it all. They have, in fact, forgotten it.
We see that living the values of Torah day-to-day is a prerequisite of being a Torah scholar. Hence the passages in the Midrash,7 which discuss how derech eretz, basic human decency, “comes before Torah”; it is the foundation on which Torah learning can be built – not just because it is a moral imperative, but because the Torah’s wisdom cannot remain with a person who does not truly live its values.
Anger is antithetical to Torah
From here we see that anger is antithetical to Torah values – something simply incompatible with our Divine system of thought and action. The Rambam8 alludes to this. Famously, he champions the ideal of a “golden mean” – a formula for prescribing moderation in various character traits, avoiding that which is extreme, and locating, what he calls, “the middle path”.
He says that there are, however, two exceptions, two areas where we ignore balance and swing for the fences. Where the extreme is the ideal. The first is humility. We should always strive to be extremely humble. The second is anger; we should always seek the extreme opposite of anger, and be extremely forbearing and self-contained.
There is a famous letter written by the Ramban some 700 years ago. The letter was written to his son and discusses the ethical principles a person should live by. He begins the letter with these words: “Accustom yourself always to speak all of your words with gentleness to all people at all times, and through this you’ll be saved from anger, which is a terrible trait that causes people to sin.”
The fact that the Ramban chose to start his great ethical will with these instructions shows us how harmful anger really is, and how fundamental it is to control it. Fortunately, he gives us practical advice on how to do so: by accustoming ourselves to speaking gently. He teaches us that whatever rage we are feeling on the inside, we should model the opposite on the outside – for, by speaking gently, we can actually calm our emotions. This is one of the great insights of Judaism: that our external behaviour changes our internal state of being.
The Torah’s ways are pleasant
We see that controlling anger is more than just about character – it is the heart and soul of the Torah value system, as the Book of Proverbs9 says: “Her [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of her paths are those of peace.”
The Talmud10 applies this principle in a variety of ways: for example, in discussing which branches can be used to fulfil the mitzvah of lulav on Sukkot, it invalidates a particular branch purely because it has thorns – arguing that the Torah’s ways are of “pleasantness and peace” and would not obligate us to do something which could harm us.
“Pleasantness and peace” are the hallmark of Torah – the very essence of Judaism. This is why it is so important to distance ourselves from anger. The Rambam11 describes the Torah as a system of gentleness and kindness. Thus, when someone becomes angry, it is the very values of Torah that are at stake. The way we express our Judaism and the way we serve G-d has to be a way that is gentle and kind, peaceful and pleasant.
As the Talmud12 says: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” Peace – the opposite of anger – is the essence of G-d’s Torah.
- Rashi on Numbers 31:21
2. Midrash, Sifrei Bamidbar 157:9; also Talmud, Pesachim 66b
3. Numbers 31:14
4. Talmud, Pesachim, 66b
5. Sichot Mussar, Sicha 87
6. Talmud, Kiddushin 32b
7. Midrash, Vayikra Rabba 9:3; Midrash, Tanna Debei Eliyahu Rabba 1:1; Midrash, Tanna debei Eliyahu Zuta, Additions to Seder Eliyahu Zuta, Mavo 7; see also Avot 2:2, 3:21, with Meforshim
8. Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 1:4-5 1:7, 2:2
9. Proverbs 3:17
10. Talmud, Sukkah 32a-b
11. Rambam, Hilchot Megillah V’Chanukah 4:14; Hilchot Melachim 10:12
12. Talmud, Berachot 64a; Talmud, Keritot 28b; Talmud, Nazir 66b; Talmud, Tamid 32b; Talmud, Yevamot 122b