“For the sin we committed before You with impudence.”
Very soon, as we wind down the holiday season, we will complete our reading of the whole Torah and celebrate this accomplishment on Simĥat Torah. We close Deuteronomy 34, the very last chapter, with the death of Moses. It seems a fitting end: we close the book with the close of the life of its most central leader. Moses died fighting after struggling with a lifetime of anger management. Moses managed the anger of a people who complained incessantly about wilderness conditions. Moses managed God’s anger after the golden calf incident and flare-ups throughout the trek, petitioning God to extend every reservoir of mercy to a wayward collection of ragtag travelers who had lost their way. And Moses had his own anger to manage – in the very same incident – when the tablets he brought down to edify, educate, and uplift the community suddenly seemed irrelevant, given the idolatrous leanings of the masses.
Moses’ management of these competing angers was perhaps his most significant contribution to leadership; he was able to negotiate a peace broad enough to sustain fragile relationships over forty years. The anger was pervasive and profound, but it did not derail Moses’ larger vision. It did, however, get in the way of Moses’ personal crowning achievement: his own entrance into the land of Israel. When he hit the rock instead of speaking to it and called the people rebels, his anger merited a harsh punishment; he could see the land but not step into it. Anger always has a cost.
A small collection of midrashim called Midrash Petirat Moshe (midrashim on the death of Moses), probably written between the seventh and eleventh centuries, was first published in the sixteenth century in Constantinople, and it traced Moses’ last hours. In this set of midrashim on Moses’ demise, a bat kol (“heavenly voice”) came down from the skies and said to Moses: “It is time for you to be taken from this world.” Moses, it is time to go, the voice beckoned. Moses pleaded with God: “Remember the day when You revealed Yourself to me at the bush! Remember Sinai and the forty days and nights I spent there! Please, please don’t turn me over to the Angel of Death.”
When Moses realized that his supplication amounted to words in the wind, he used an unusual delaying tactic. He asked God if he could bless the Jewish people one more time, each tribe with a separate blessing. This would buy him more time. But just as he was in the midst of delivering his farewells, he saw that his time had almost run out. The Angel of Death was losing patience. Moses gathered everyone together quickly for one collective blessing. But, much as Jacob blessed his sons with many gloomy predictions about their future, Moses’ blessing was no blessing. It was a request for meĥila, forgiveness: “I made you suffer to keep Torah and mitzvot,” he said, “ve’akhshav maĥlu li” – now, grant me your forgiveness. And they said, “Rabbenu ve’adonenu, maĥul lakh” – we forgive you. Then the people cried out to Moses: “Moses, our teacher, we angered you and made your life difficult – forgive us.” And he responded, “I forgive you.” And then he was gone. Moses ran out of time. He used his very last breath to ask forgiveness from his people, and his people asked forgiveness from him. It was forgiveness for anger, an anger that trailed forty years of imposing – and questioning – authority.1For these midrashim in translation, see H.L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. M. Bockmuehl (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991).
The relationship between anger and forgiveness is not hard to conjure. Anger that feels uncontrollable often gets resolved in a passionate and meaningful display of contrition. The vehemence of anger often turns into the desperate plea to be forgiven, substituting one intensity of emotion for another. But the pattern of sin, anger, exile, and forgiveness is so well established in life and in biblical history that it wearies us and makes us wonder if it will ever come to an end. Are we destined to replay it constantly, much like someone in an abusive relationship characterized by violence followed by forgiveness? The pattern emotionally exhausts and depletes its victims and often its perpetrators.
This midrash may sound like the happy ending we wanted for our venerable leader, but in reality, there is something exceptionally tragic about it. A forty-year tumultuous relationship ended with an apology with only minutes left to a life. Had Moses both asked for forgiveness and granted it earlier, he could have put the anger behind him and enjoyed a changed relationship. He may even have been buried in the Promised Land.
In The Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto delineates different types of anger, loosely based on the following saying from Ethics of the Fathers:
There are four types of temperaments. One who is easily angered and easily appeased – his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to appease – his flaw cancels his virtue. One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased is pious. One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease is wicked. (5:14)
All anger is not the same.
Rabbi Luzzatto then creates anger profiles to help this passage become more clear and descriptive. The category names are mine; the quotations are from The Path of the Just.
The first type of anger is fury. Any opposition to the will of a furious person is met with intimidating wrath, to the degree that “his heart is no longer with him and his judgment vanishes.”2Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1980), 161. Anger clouds rationality and is a force so potent in the person of fury that he is almost unrecognizable; his state of anger is entirely different from his normal temperament. It is this kind of anger that our sages probably thought of when one remarked: “A person who is angry it is as if he worshipped idols.”3Shabbat 105b. The anger described here is so intense and destructive that Rabbi Luzzatto feared the worst for those caught in the cyclone of its path: “A man such as he would destroy the entire world if it were within his power to do so, for he is not in any way directed by reason and is as devoid of sensibility as any predatory beast.”4Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, 161. This kind of anger is primal and animalistic. It surges forth indiscriminately, and Rabbi Luzzatto worried that in the state of rage, a person with this kind of anger could commit any number of heinous crimes.
Because fury has such a transformative impact on its victims, those who suffer this type of anger will often apologize profusely: “I don’t know what happened to me” or “I didn’t mean it.” And in some odd way, they may be right. The rabid, apoplectic person that spewed out venom is not the same person when contrite. Anger has so wholly taken over that the individual becomes unrecognizable. But when this happens more than once without sufficient accountability, the apologies stop working. No one believes the perpetrator.
This anger is not easily ignited but burns hot once it is. In the words of Ethics of the Fathers, this state belongs to one who is slow to anger. Unlike the person of fury whose anger is easily set off and takes a long time to wear off, the worst of possible conditions, this individual does not need to control every small point or react to everything that might get under his skin. Slow burn takes time to gather its forces, but when it does it is relentless and destructive. The anger is just as virulent when it hits as it is in the first case. It is so damaging that “he will not afterwards be able to straighten what he has made crooked.”5Ibid. We can do damage control for slights and mild insults, but fits of anger like these stay imprinted on the memory of others like a Rorschach blot of bitterness, as it says in Job, “Envy kills the fool” (Job 5:2). Many relationships are killed by anger.
Anger that is not easily aroused, and even when aroused is restrained, represents for Rabbi Luzzatto a higher level of self-control. This type of anger does not descend into irrationality, yet the one who has it is still called “a man of anger”6Ibid., 163. because he nurses his wrath. Rather than a slow burn, it is more like a simmer. The person has less to lose than his angrier friends, but he is still touched and moved by his anger in some way. Rabbi Luzzatto places this entire discussion in his chapter on cleanliness. Here he refers not to physical hygiene but to certain negative character traits and what we look like when we have managed to clean ourselves of even the slightest smack of their deleterious effects. A person clean of anger has no simmering anger. It comes and goes. It does not linger.
It is hard to think of any expression of anger as appropriate, but Rabbi Luzzatto did not recommend placidity and passivity in the face of outrage or in instances when passion can become an important educational tool, as in a teaching or parenting relationship. Controlled anger may be necessary to ensure that an important life message penetrates the heart and mind of the listener. In this instance, The Path of the Just recommends, “Any anger shown…should be anger of the face and not anger of the heart.”7Ibid. This individual may experience anger, but it is not consuming. It takes a long time for anger to surface, and it is quickly let go into the ether where it flies away before doing any real damage. A person who can achieve this level of control and relinquishment is worthy of Rabbi Luzzatto’s praise. This is reminiscent of a statement made by the sage Adda ben Ahaba: “Anger never went to bed with me.”8Ta’anit 20b. He did not say that he never experienced anger, only that it was not his company in the middle of the night. Adda ben Ahaba was not lying in his bed stewing with glowering insomnia. Contrast this to a refrigerator magnet: “Don’t go to sleep angry. Stay up and fight.”
Rabbi Luzzatto concludes this section of his writing with a famous talmudic quote about the signature of a person as he or she walks in the world: “A person is recognized in three ways: through his goblet, through his pocket, and through his anger.”9Eiruvin 65b. A goblet can refer to the way a person holds his drink according to some commentaries. To others, it refers to the way we share the food at our table: if our cup truly runneth over, then we openly share our abundance with others. The pocket refers to our philanthropic giving. We are judged not by what we have but ultimately by what we give away. And the last hallmark of our footprint in this world is the way we manage our anger. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
Hundreds of years before Rabbi Luzzatto offered his commentary on this passage from Ethics of the Fathers, Nahmanides wrote an ethical will to his son, “In Praise of Humility.” His chief concern was that his son understand the relationship between anger and humility and remind himself continually about the importance of self-control. Nahmanides even advised his son to read the letter weekly to keep its content fresh in his mind as a guardian over his behavior. The letter became so popular that it is included in many prayerbooks. These excerpts illustrate Nahmanides’ understanding of anger as a manifestation of the ego:
“Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, and forsake not the teaching of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8). Train yourself always to speak softly to every man. You will then avoid anger for which there is no worse trait for it brings a man to sin. Our Rabbis said: “Whoever flies into a rage, every kind of Hell has dominion over him.” As it is said: “Therefore remove anger from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh” (Ecclesiastes 11:10)….
And when you are saved from anger your heart will embrace the trait of humility, which is the finest of all good traits, as it is said: “The reward of humility is the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 22:4). As a result of humility the fear of the Lord will enter your heart. For you will reflect upon whence you came and whither you are going, and that even in your lifetime you are a worm and a maggot, how much more so after your death. And you will reflect that you will be called upon to give a full account of your deeds before the King of glory….
I shall, therefore, explain to you how to conduct yourself with humility and how to make this virtue your own at all times. All your words should be spoken gently. Your head should be bent, your eyes gazing downward to the ground and your heart upward. When you address someone do not look him in the face. Let every man seem superior to you in your own eyes….
Read this letter once a week and do not fail to keep its instructions.10As translated by Louis Jacobs, Jewish Ethics, Philosophy and Mysticism (New York: Behrman House, 1969), pp. 19–21.
Anger makes us elevate ourselves over others in judgment. Nahmanides advises a number of techniques to assist in modifying anger, many of them involving body language suggesting submissiveness and subordination: bowing the head, lowering the eyes, imagining the heart advancing upwards, speaking softly. And then there are the larger conceptual ways that we humble ourselves: know from whence you came and before whom you are called in judgment. It is difficult to judge others when we imagine God judging us. When we think of the small space we will occupy in the ground at the end of our days, we begin to realize that we should carry ourselves with that smallness and humility while we are alive.
Maimonides also devised a technique to modify character problems – chief among them anger – for the life of the heart and mind. In this excerpt from the The Laws of Character Traits, Maimonides uses the Aristotelian notion of the golden mean to achieve balance in the face of anger or other character deficiencies:
Each and every man possesses many character traits. Each trait is very different and distant from the others. One type of man is wrathful; he is constantly angry. [In contrast,] there is the calm individual who is never moved to anger, or, if at all, he will be slightly angry, [perhaps once] during a period of several years…11Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Character Traits 1:1–4.
The two extremes of each trait, which are at a distance from one another, do not reflect a proper path. It is not fitting that a man should behave in accordance with these extremes or teach them to himself. If he finds that his nature leans towards one of the extremes or adapts itself easily to it, or, if he has learned one of the extremes and acts accordingly, he should bring himself back to what is proper and walk in the path of the good. This is the straight path.12The Laws of Personality Development 1:3.
Although Maimonides generally advocates moderation, when it comes to anger, he believed that only yielding to humility in the extreme would help counter the problem.13Ibid., 2:3. When we suffer anger, Maimonides advises us to take on behavior that generates humility to pull ourselves to the opposite extreme, thereby locating an acceptable balance. The notion of achieving balance in this fashion may sound unrealistic but Jewish law is generally founded upon the notion that good deeds shape character. We do not wait for a generous impulse to give or to help others. That impulse may never surface, but if the world is built on kindness (Psalms 89:3) then enforced behaviors, witnessed and supported by communities of caring, help us manage our worst selves to bring out our best selves.
And if this method still sounds unlikely, we turn back the clock to 1897 to another Jewish writer: Max Beerbohm. Beerbohm wrote a story called “The Happy Hypocrite: A Fairy Tale for Tired Men,” about a man named Lord George Hell. Lord George is not just mean; he also looks mean. He is cruel and depraved and seems beyond redemption. One day, Lord George sees a beautiful girl performing in a show. Her name is Jenny, and she is the essence of kindness. He falls deeply in love with her. But Jenny sees right through him, telling him that she would only marry a man with the face of a saint. Lord George begins to see himself through her eyes and realizes that he can never win Jenny’s heart as he is. He develops a plan, asking a famous mask-maker in London to make him a saint’s mask, one that will make him appear handsome and kind. This artisan is such an expert that no one can tell that Lord George is wearing a mask. Everyone believes that they are seeing Lord George’s true new face. With this mask, Lord George approaches Jenny and eventually wins her heart. In registering their marriage, George writes his name as “George Heaven.” Living with Jenny, he learns the art of selflessness and kindness. He is careful never to remove his mask, and he becomes a giving and wonderful husband to Jenny. Behind this mask, he has learned to become a different person, and he works hard to refrain from any of his former behaviors.
But the story does not end here. One day George encounters an old enemy; he had accumulated many in his previous life. The enemy sees straight through George’s mask and, in front of Jenny, rips it off. Lord George is terrified – and the reader trembles in fear as well. But as the mask is ripped off, we find that George’s face underneath is not the same face that it had been when he put the mask on. Over the years his features conformed to the mask and now – even underneath it – he is handsome and kind.
• Consider the four types of anger: 1) quick to anger but quick to release it, 2) slow to anger but slow to release it, 3) slow to anger but quick to release it, and 4) quick to anger but slow to release it. Which most closely describes your temperament?
• Once you have identified the category closest to your own type of anger, consider writing a letter to an imaginary someone (or to your children or life partner) that discusses the role anger plays in your life: in your childhood, perhaps on the receiving end of anger, and then as an adult. If you have children, think about their temperaments, how you help them with anger management, and the cost of anger in their relationships. In the letter, suggest techniques that might help someone in your anger category or another category handle anger in a more controlled, more helpful way.
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 7:2
A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner. Therefore, one should always repent from his sins immediately and should not say: “When I grow older, I will repent,” for perhaps he will die before he grows older. This was implied by the wise counsel given by Solomon [Ecclesiastes 9:8]: “At all times, your clothes should be white.”
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 6: “The Trait of Zeal”
We see with our own eyes how often a person neglects his duty in spite of his awareness of it and in spite of his having come to recognize as a truth what is required for the salvation of his soul and what is incumbent upon him in respect to his Creator. This neglect is due not to an inadequate recognition of his duty nor to any other cause but the increasing weight of his laziness upon him; so that he says, “I will eat a little,” or “I will sleep a little,” or “It is hard for me to leave the house”…and all the other excuses and pretenses that the mouth of fools is full of. Either way, the Torah is neglected, Divine service dispensed with, and the Creator abandoned.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 10:5
How wrongdoing dulls the intelligence, both the intelligence of the individual and the intelligence of society, of a generation and of an epoch! The divine word reaches a person from all its sources, from the Torah, from religious faith, from ancestral customs, from social mores, from his inner sense of equity – all these are channeled from the core reality in the spiritual order and its fullness, in the laws of heaven and earth, and their most basic essence. When degeneration leads him to embrace an outlook on life that negates his higher vision, then he becomes prey to the dark side within him, to his weaker self. The result is that he cannot muster the strength to hold on to the orderly structure of life as it makes its claims on him, whereby he is held back from sin and steered in the way of integrity as God fashioned him.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• How does thinking about one’s death help manage anger?
• Laziness and anger have an unusual relationship to each other. How would you describe it?
• Why does anger hurt a higher vision of self?