and bowed down to a molten image. (20) They exchanged their glory
for the image of a bull that feeds on grass. (21) They forgot God who saved them,
who performed great deeds in Egypt, (22) wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds. (23) He would have destroyed them
had not Moses His chosen one
confronted Him in the breach
to avert His destructive wrath.
A hot-tempered man commits many offenses.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Roman essayist and stoic, wrote volumes about anger. He was against it. Anger is counterproductive, he argued (“he who gets angry is overthrown”) and a moral flaw — “anger comes, not from affection, but from weakness.”
וְהָתַנְיָא, רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר מִשּׁוּם חִילְפָא בַּר אַגְרָא שֶׁאָמַר מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן נוּרִי: הַמְקָרֵע בְּגָדָיו בַּחֲמָתוֹ, וְהַמְשַׁבֵּר כֵּלָיו בַּחֲמָתוֹ, וְהַמְפַזֵּר מְעוֹתָיו בַּחֲמָתוֹ, יְהֵא בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּעוֹבֵד עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. שֶׁכָּךְ אוּמָּנוּתוֹ שֶׁל יֵצֶר הָרָע: הַיּוֹם אוֹמֵר לוֹ עֲשֵׂה כָּךְ, וּלְמָחָר אוֹמֵר לוֹ עֲשֵׂה כָּךְ, עַד שֶׁאוֹמֵר לוֹ עֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה וְהוֹלֵךְ וְעוֹבֵד. אָמַר רַבִּי אָבִין: מַאי קְרָאָה — ״לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֵל זָר וְלֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל נֵכָר״, אֵיזֶהוּ אֵל זָר שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּגוּפוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם? הֱוֵי אוֹמֵר, זֶה יֵצֶר הָרָע.
Wasn’t it taught in a baraita that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says in the name of Ḥilfa bar Agra, who said in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri: One who rends his garments in his anger, or who breaks his vessels in his anger, or who scatters his money in his anger, should be like an idol worshipper in your eyes, as that is the craft of the evil inclination. Today it tells him do this, and tomorrow it tells him do that, until eventually, when he no longer controls himself, it tells him worship idols and he goes and worships idols. Rabbi Avin said: What verse alludes to this? “There shall not be a strange god within you, and you shall not bow to a foreign god” (Psalms 81:10). What is the strange god that is within a person’s body? Say that it is the evil inclination. One may not rend his garments in anger, because in doing so he is deriving pleasure from satisfying the evil inclination.
(יד) דָּבָר אַחֵר, פְּסָל לְךָ, זֶה שֶׁאָמַר הַכָּתוּב (קהלת ז, ט): אַל תְּבַהֵל בְּרוּחֲךָ לִכְעוֹס כִּי כַעַס בְּחֵיק כְּסִילִים יָנוּחַ. וּמִי הָיָה זֶה שֶׁכָּעַס, זֶה משֶׁה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות לב, יט): וַיִּחַר אַף משֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת הַלֻּחֹת, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הָא משֶׁה, אַתָּה מֵפִיג חֲמָתְךָ בְּלוּחוֹת הַבְּרִית, מְבַקֵּשׁ אַתְּ שֶׁאָפִיג אֶת חֲמָתִי וְאַתְּ רוֹאֶה שֶׁאֵין הָעוֹלָם יָכוֹל לַעֲמֹד אֲפִלּוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת, אָמַר לוֹ וּמַה יֵּשׁ לִי לַעֲשׂוֹת, אָמַר לוֹ לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ קָטָרִיקֵי, אַתְּ שִׁבַּרְתָּ אוֹתָן וְאַתְּ מַחְלִיף אוֹתָן, הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב: פְּסָל לְךָ שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים.
In this midrashic take on the breaking of the tablets, God reviewed the circumstances with Moses. The midrash begins with a reminder that God told Moses to carve two new tablets, adding don't let your spirit be vexed because vexation abides in the breast of fools. And to whom was this anger found? Moses, as it is said: he became enraged and hurled the tablets from his hand. The Holy One said to Moses; you dispersed anger in breaking the tablets of the covenant, and you replaced them . . .
שִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת שֶׁמּוּנָּחִים בָּאָרוֹן
the broken pieces of the first set of tablets, which were placed in the Ark.
Did displays of anger boost Moses' status? Were they a show of strength or a show of weakness?
Do displays of anger garner attention? Or does extreme anger drive people away?
Are displays of anger more persuasive than warmth or remorse?
Is anger more acceptable depending upon place, time and circumstance?
God neither punishes nor rewards Moses' anger, this time. Is God's reaction essential to the story's meaning?
Was smashing the tablets more an act of heresy or an act of faith?
What does smashing the tablets say about the balance between law and morality? between law and faithfulness?