Matot-Masei | Dealing With Anger
Updated: Apr 22
One of the most difficult human emotions to deal with is anger; it can be such a destructive force in one’s life. What does the Torah teach us about dealing with anger, making our lives more positive and avoiding the pitfalls of anger?
There is an incident that takes place in this week’s Parsha which gives us insight into how destructive anger can be. In this week’s Parsha we read about a battle that takes place between the Children of Israel and the people of Moav, during which the Jewish People are successful and bring back lots of pots, pans and other cooking utensils in the spoils of battle. After the battle, they were given the laws of kashering, of how to prepare vessels properly. (The word kosher means “properly prepared.” It is not sufficient to have kosher food; it must be cooked using kosher pots and pans.)
Anger causes a wise person to lose his wisdom
It is interesting to note that the one who teaches them the laws of kashering vessels is Elazar, the son of Aaron, who following his father’s death assumed the position of High Priest. It is unusual that Elazar is given this task; Elazar was the head of the service in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, while Moshe was the master teacher. Moshe was the one who transmitted the laws from G-d to the people so that they would understand what G-d wanted from them. Rashi discusses why Elazar the High Priest is the one who teaches these laws and not Moshe. He cites from the Talmud which explains that the reason Moshe did not give over these laws was because he had forgotten them. How could Moshe, the leader and brilliant teacher of the people, who communicated directly with G-d, forget anything?
The clue to his forgetting these laws is found earlier in the Parsha. Without getting into the specific details of what happened, it says the people did not fulfil the battle instructions properly and in Chapter 31 verse 14 it says Vayiktzof Moshe al pikuday hachayil, “and Moshe became angry with the soldiers who had been appointed in the battle.” Rashi quotes from the Talmud which says that because Moshe got angry, he forgot the laws of kashering vessels. From here the Talmud draws an important principle, in Tractate Pesachim page 66b: a person who is a chacham, an intelligent and learned scholar, his wisdom departs from him when he is angry; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him when he is angry. (It is important to note that obviously Moshe Rabbeinu, our great teacher, operated on a much higher level that we can even begin to imagine. We must not picture Moses as losing his temper like an ordinary person would; on his level, his moment of anger made him unable to give over these laws.)
Torah is not like any other system
We see from here that even a person like Moshe, at his level of greatness, lost something in a moment of anger. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mir Rosh Yeshiva, explains that Torah wisdom is not like any other wisdom of the world; it is something that has to become part of our personality and not be just a cold study of information on an intellectual level. Of course, Torah is an awesome intellectual system, but it is not merely about the intellect; it is about living it and incorporating it into who we are.
Rav Shmuelevitz quotes the Gemara in Kiddushim which discusses how we must honour certain people, and which of these people has the right to waive the honour due to them. We must honour our parents, a king or a head of state, and a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar. Parents are allowed to waive their honour. For example, children are not allowed to call their parents by their first names, but if their parents waive this honour and give them permission to do so, they are allowed. (Whether this is an ideal thing to do is a separate discussion, but strictly speaking in terms of the laws of honouring one’s parents, they are allowed to waive this honour.)
A king or a head of state, however, is not allowed to waive his honour because it is not his honour to waive. The honour of parents is due to them in their personal capacity. The honour of the king or head of state is due to him in his public capacity as representing their country and their people and therefore the honour is not his own to waive.
A talmid chacham, a Torah scholar, is allowed to waive his honour. We would think he is not allowed to, because the honour that is due to him is because of the Torah, and not because of him in his personal capacity. Yet the Gemara says he is allowed to waive his honour because when he learns, the Torah becomes part of him; he owns it, and therefore waiving this honour is at his discretion.
What Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz brings from this Gemara is that Torah becomes part of the Torah scholar’s personality; the more a person learns the Torah and delves into its great wisdom, the more it becomes part of him. A true Torah scholar should be a person who walks the talk, who lives it, who embodies it; someone in whom the values of the Torah are personified in the way they conduct themselves, the way they interact with people, their integrity and their decency. Every part of the Torah scholar’s being should be an expression of Torah values.
This is why when there is anger, the wisdom of the Torah leaves. Torah not like any other intellectual system; if the person is not walking the talk, if they are not an expression of the depth of Torah values, then there is no place for Torah within such a person. Living the values of Torah day-to-day is a prerequisite to being a Torah scholar. Hence many passages in the Talmud discuss how Derech Eretz, decency, is the foundation upon which Torah learning can be built – not just because it is the moral imperative, but because the Torah cannot remain in a person who does not actually live the Torah. It has to become part of who we are.
Anger is the antithesis of Torah values
From here we see that anger is the antithesis of what the Torah stands for, and therefore not something a Torah personality can abide by. Obviously, every person is a human being of flesh and blood, a mere mortal, and we all sin; as the verse in Job, which we recite at every funeral, says, ayn tzaddik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov velo yecheta, “there is no person on earth who does only good and never sins.” To sin is part of being human and so we all have to work on our character, what our Sages call middot tovot.
The Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, explains that in all of our character traits we have to aim for the middle, the golden mean, and not go to either extreme for extremes are never appropriate. For example, a person can be very stingy about their money and not part with it, or go to the opposite extreme and be totally irresponsible with it. We need to find a balance between the two extremes.
However, the Rambam says there are two character traits where the golden mean is not appropriate and we should go to the extreme: the one is arrogance and the other is anger. With both of these we have to go to the opposite extreme. There is no room for arrogance at all and the Rambam’s source for this is Moshe, who is described as anav meod, “very humble.” So too with anger, one has to go to the opposite extreme because it is a value and a characteristic which is so contrary to the essence of what the Torah is about.
An ethical will on how and why to avoid anger
There is a famous letter written by Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban (with the letter nun at the end), who lived some 700 years ago. He wrote this letter – what we would call an ethical will – giving advice for life to his son but his words are timeless. Writing such a letter is an important exercise, as it clarifies our core values and the moral instruction we want to bequeath to our children. He begins the letter with a verse from Proverbs, and the first sentence in his own words reads as follows: “Accustom yourself always to speak all of your words with gentleness, to all people and at all times.” This is the Ramban’s first instruction to his son and, by extension, to us: we must speak gently to all people at all times. He continues, “and through this, you will be saved from anger which is a very evil trait and causes people to sin. This is what our Sages say, that ‘whoever becomes angry all kinds of hell rule over him.’”
The fact that the Ramban chose to start his ethical will with these instructions shows us how dangerous anger really is, but at the same time also gives us practical advice on how to control it. He is saying, externally you must act in a way which is the opposite of anger and that will have an internal impact. One of the great insights of Judaism is that what we do on the outside influences who we are on the inside. If we speak gently and kindly, this will prevent anger.
The Torah’s ways are pleasant; anger has no place in it
Anger is not just about our character, about how we behave and conduct ourselves but is the heart and soul of the Torah value system. The Book of Proverbs describes the Torah as “Deracheha darcay noam vechol netivoteha shalom, “her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are of peace.” Torah is about pleasantness and peace. In fact, the Gemara uses this principle in a practical applications: when discussing which branches can be used to fulfil the mitzvah of Lulav on Succot, the Gemara suggests a particular branch and then says that it is actually invalid because it has thorns on it. The Gemara rules that this branch could not possibly be the branch that Hashem commanded us to take because it hurts to hold it and given that the Torah’s ways are pleasant, the Torah would not obligate us to do something which harms us.
“Ways of pleasantness and peace” are the yardstick to assess the impact of Torah; this is the true character of Torah, and what Judaism is about, and this is why it is so important to distance ourselves from anger, because the Torah is not an angry, vengeful system. As the Rambam writes, the Torah is a system of gentleness and kindness in the world. Thus, when someone becomes angry, not only are his character traits at stake but the very values of Torah are at stake. The expression of our Judaism and the way we serve G-d has to be in a way of gentleness, kindness and ways of peace. Obviously there are certain laws which are more difficult to understand and to keep but the overall thrust and expression of our Judaism has to be ways of pleasantness and peace.
This is why it says talmidey chachamim marbim shalom baolam “great Torah scholars bring peace into the world.” One of the explanations of this passage, which I heard from the Late Rabbi Alloy of blessed memory, is that it is not just a prediction but a definition; it is saying a true Torah scholar is someone who brings peace in the word. A person who really lives the values of the Torah will bring peace and gentleness into the world because that is the essence of Hashem’s Torah.