Have you ever been told to "control your anger?" Did you that anger you even more? Did you understand that as an unfair rejection of your feelings? Jewish tradition, too, instructs us to control our anger, but it is not a suppression of our emotions. Rather, it is a request to channel them towards holy ends. It's okay to be angry at what is happening in the world and the actors in it, but then what?

אמר רבי אילעאי בשלשה דברים אדם ניכר בכוסו ובכיסו ובכעסו ואמרי ליה אף בשחקו:

Rabbi Elai said: In three matters a person’s true character is ascertained; in his cup, i.e., his behavior when he drinks; in his pocket, i.e., his conduct in his financial dealings with other people; and in his anger. And some say: A person also reveals his real nature in his laughter.

Anger poses many risks. It may compromise our physical health, interpersonal relationships, and our ability to make balanced judgements. However, it offers an opportunity as well. In the same way that the Talmud suggests drinking and spending money are risky activities, but when done properly, highlight a person's merits and values, the same can be said about anger. Anger can be an indiscriminate consuming fire if left unattended, but when one is mindful of their anger, controls it, and directs it, they can use it to protest idolatry and injustice and bring people together.

(יט) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף מֹשֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מידו [מִיָּדָיו] אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר.

(19) And it came to pass, as soon as he came unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה פְּסָל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים כָּרִאשֹׁנִ֑ים וְכָתַבְתִּי֙ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ׃

The LORD said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered (asher shibarta).

וּמְנָלַן דְּהִסְכִּים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל יָדוֹ? — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ״, וְאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ.

And from where do we derive that the Holy One, Blessed be He, agreed with his reasoning? As it is stated: “The first tablets which you broke [asher shibarta]” (Exodus 34:1), and Reish Lakish said: The word asher is an allusion to the phrase: May your strength be true [yishar koḥakha] due to the fact that you broke the tablets.

God does not condemn Moses' anger here, but neither does God condone it either. However, in the Talmudic tale, God agrees with how Moses channeled his anger. Even though on the face of it, Moses allowed his anger to turn destructive by breaking the tablets, it was actually a form of constructive destruction. This angry act of breaking the tablets actually saved the Jewish people, as they would have perished if they knowingly violated the laws they were about to receive. When one is mindful of and careful with their anger - directing it towards civil disobedience or peaceful protest, for example - one can break the chains of injustice and idolatry and help restore a fractured community.

Learn More with these Sefaria Sheets:

The Torah of Productive Rage, by Rebecca Rosenthal

Smashing the Tablets and Skillful Anger, by Jacob Fine

Righteous Anger, by Evan Sheinhalf

"Anger" in Sefaria Topics