Friday, February 22, 2008

Dvar Torah For Ki Tisa: Getting Angry

Anger is a bad character trait. It is something that we must cleanse ourselves of, as the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) explains in his classic book The Path of the Just:
There are innumerable traits; for as all of a person's worldly actions, so are his traits. It is from them that his actions flow. But just as we discussed those mitzvoth which there was a greater need to consider, because of the greater frequency of lapses in relation to them, so shall we discuss the chief traits in greater detail because of the relative frequency with which they come into play. These are pride, anger, envy, and lust - all evil traits, whose evil is widely recognized and need not be demonstrated. They are evil both in themselves and in their results, for they are all outside the realm of intelligence and wisdom. Each one of them has it within itself to lead a person into severe sins. In relation to pride we are explicitly warned (Deuteronomy 8:14), "And your heart will be proud and you will forget the Lord, your God." Concerning anger our Sages of blessed memory said (Shabbath 105B), "One who becomes angry should be in your eyes as one who serves idols."
Furthermore the Ramchal writes that one who is humble does not get angry:
Unquestionably, Humility removes many stumbling blocks from a man's path and brings him near to many good things; for the Humble man is little concerned with wordly affairs and is not moved to envy by its vanities. Furthermore, his company is very pleasant and he gives pleasure to his fellowmen. He is perforce never aroused to anger and to controversy; he does everything quietly and calmly. Happy are those who have been privileged to attain this trait!
It is well known that Moshe Rabbeinu was humble:
Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.
However, in this week's Torah portion, Moshe loses his temper:
And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand; tables that were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses: 'There is a noise of war in the camp.' And he said: 'It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome, but the noise of them that sing do I hear.' And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh 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.
What's interesting that our sages praise Moshe for smashing the tablets! He got angry, smashed the tablets which "were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God". Rashi, at the end of his commentary to the Torah, brings us the words of our sages with regards to this matter:
before the eyes of all Israel. [This expression alludes to the incident, where] His heart stirred him up to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “and I shattered them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). - [Sifrei 33:41] And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, “[the first Tablets] which you shattered” (Exod. 34:1); [God said to Moses:] “Well done for shattering them!” - [Shab.. 87a]
(A paranthetical comment: The words of the sages are based on a play of words in Hebrew. The Torah was given in Hebrew and really must be learned in Hebrew.) Since the sages praised Moshe, we have to conclude that there are times when one may get angry. These are the words of the Rambam (Maimonides) in the Laws of Character Traits (1:7):

כיצד--לא יהיה בעל חמה נוח לכעוס, ולא כמת שאינו מרגיש; אלא בינוני: לא יכעוס אלא על דבר גדול שראוי לכעוס עליו, כדי שלא ייעשה כיוצא בו פעם אחרת
To paraphrase the Rambam:
One should not be a madman that angers easily, and not like a cadaver that has no feeling. One should be in between; one must not get angry unless he is dealing with a very big, important matter that is fit to get angry about, in order that people won't repeat it.
No doubt that the sight of the Golden Calf and the dancing, so soon after the giving of the Torah, was something to get angry about. But what about the Ramchal who said that a humble person is "never aroused to anger"? IMHO he agrees with the Rambam, that in rare, special cases even one who is humble can get angry. However, everyone agrees that anger is a negative character trait that must be avoided.

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