What Anger Does to Us

Matot – Masei

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

Toward the end of the book of Numbers, we read about the Israelites making their way to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan – the Land of Israel.  Forty years of wandering are about to end.  We would be happy to read about a festive entrance into the land, but history did not abide by our expectations.  The entrance to the Land of Israel was replete with wars, and this week we read about the war fought against the five kings of Midian.


We also learn some laws pertaining to purity and utensils: how one can purify a utensil that became impure, etc.  These laws are practical today as well when there might be a need to kasher a utensil that was used for cooking a food forbidden according to the laws of kashrut.

And here’s an interesting detail: As opposed to the rest of the Torah laws that were told by Moses, these were not told by him.  Moses was commanded these laws, but the person who instructed the nation about them was Elazar the kohen, the son of Aaron:

Elazar the kohen said to the soldiers returning from battle, "This is the statute that the Lord commanded Moses…”

(Numbers 31, 21)

Why was Moses silent and why did he let Elazar take his place? Chazal, in midrash, offer an answer we would never have dared to give.  Let us quote them:

“Moses, our teacher, because he succumbed to anger, he succumbed to error.”

(Sifre on Numbers, Matot, 157)

A few verses before the instruction given by Elazar the kohen, we read: “Moses became angry with the officers of the army…who had returned from the campaign of war” (Numbers, 31, 14). The result, according to the midrash, was immediate: Moses forgot the halachic (Jewish law) instruction relevant to the situation and Elazar had to take his place.  Later, the sages of the midrash list other times when Moses got angry and as a result made a mistake in halacha or action.

One of the early Jewish biblical commentators, Rabbi Judah ibn Balaam (Spain, 1000-1070), made a connection between this story and one about the prophet Elisha told in Kings II.  The story there is about a regional war led by King Yehoram of Israel, King Yehoshafat of Judea, and with them the king of Edom, against King Meisha of Moab.  At a certain point, when the armies of Israel and Judea were in trouble, the kings turned to Elisha the prophet who was accompanying the army.  Elisha initially responded in anger, "What do I have [to do] with you? Go to your father's prophets and to your mother's prophets!", hinting at the idol worship prevalent in those days in the kingdom of Israel.  Later, Elisha agreed to the kings’ request and instructed, "And now fetch me a musician." And immediately, “the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him."

Why did Elisha need a musician to play for him?  Rashi answers this in only a few words, “Because of his anger, the Divine Presence left him” (Rashi on Kings II 3, 15).  Again, we encounter a tremendously spiritual person getting angry, even legitimately and justifiably angry, but as a result of this anger, he is unable to return to his spiritual level.  The Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, commentator and astronomer, Provence, 14th century) wrote the following about the story of Elisha:

“To tell us that one should avoid anger, because anger extinguishes the light of the intellect.”

We are being called upon to learn from our nation’s greatest leaders, from their successes but also from their failures.  We have to admit that we don’t have to go all the way back to Moses in the 14th century BCE or back to the prophet Elisha in the 9th century BCE.  We know full well how anger can be detrimental and we are fully aware of the damage and harm that come from rage.  How many relationships have been harmed by an uncontrolled moment of anger?  How many disputes could have been resolved had people exercised restraint and not allowed anger to gain control over them?

Yes, we can.  We can overcome anger, control it and manage it. 


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