Don’t Give in to Anger
July 15, 2014
Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. — Numbers 31:14
The Torah portion for this week is Matot, which means “branches,” from Numbers 30:2–32:42, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 1:1–2:3.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can tell the greatness of a man by what makes him angry.” If that’s the case, then we can tell a lot about the greatness of Moses from what made him angry in this week’s Torah portion. God had commanded Moses to instruct the Israelites to go to war against the nation of Midian. This was the same nation that had attempted to destroy the children of Israel by sending women to seduce the men and trick them into idolatry. However, when the fighters returned from war, Moses was angered to see that the Midianite women – the ones who caused the most damage – were left alive. The people had disobeyed God and that was what angered Moses. He was angry because of his intense devotion to God.
That being said, it seems that Moses was punished for his anger even though it originated from an admirable place. A few verses later we learn that it was Eleazar the priest who communicated the laws regarding the purification of vessels taken in war rather than Moses. (See Numbers 31:21–24.) The Sages explain that Eleazar had to instruct the soldiers about the law because Moses was made to forget the laws when he became angry. Certainly Moses was justified in his anger, and we can even argue that his zealousness was praiseworthy, so why was he seemingly punished for it?
Maybe you’ve had the following experience. You are trying to open a door to a house or car and the key just won’t turn. You might be in a rush or your hands full of packages and you start to get frustrated. You jam the key in further but the door still won’t open. You become angry and annoyed, trying desperately to open the door in all sorts of foolish ways. Had you stayed calm and rational you might have realized that you simply had the wrong key!
In Proverbs 29:11 it is written: “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” One way to understand this verse is that when we are angry, we become foolish, but when we are calm, we are wise. Moses wasn’t punished with forgetfulness because of his anger; rather, it was the natural consequence of his anger. When we are angry, we compromise our mental faculties. We do all sorts of foolish things and say things that we later regret. We lose control and rationality. Moses’ anger clouded his ability to give instructions clearly and rationally, so Eleazar had to do it.
The word “anger” is one letter away from the word “danger.” Next time you find yourself angered, even if it is fully justified, stop and do nothing. Wait for your anger to subside and only then take action. One moment of anger can destroy a lifetime of work, but one moment of patience can save us from a lifetime of regret.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President