Coping with Rage

Dvar Torah for Shabbat Chukkat (Num. 19:1 – 22:1) delivered on Friday evening 6/29/12

As many of you know, I’ve been playing viola since I was a kid, since I was 12 years old to be exact. 

In general, I love playing viola and it provides a great outlet for me.  But I have to admit that there have been times that that wasn’t the case. In particular, I remember an incident that occurred when I was in High School and I was selected to participate in a regional festival orchestra.  One of the pieces we were going to play was a suite from the composer Virgil Thomson’s incidental music to the film “The River.”   For festival orchestras like this we would get the music a couple of months in advance and then be expected to learn it by the time we got to the week of the concert, when, typically, we’d rehearse all day for a day or two and then perform. 

So, anyway, I was home one afternoon trying to learn the viola part, and it was really difficult for me, and I got increasingly frustrated about just not being able to get it “under my fingers.”  At a certain point, I got so upset that, in a fit of rage, I smashed my viola bow against the music stand and broke it in two.

I was so embarrassed about what I had done.  And, to make matters worse, this was a school instrument that belonged to my High School music department.  (I didn’t own a viola of my own until my parents bought me one when I was in 12th grade).  But I brought the broken bow in to my High School orchestra director, Mr. Biava, and he was very kind and understanding.  I got a new bow to use – and I don’t think he ever even made me or my parents pay for the broken bow.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses doesn’t get off so easy when he has his own fit of anger.  It’s the 40th year of the wandering in the wilderness, Moses’ beloved sister Miriam has just died, and the people are faced with drought.   Trying times for a leader who must have been pretty burned out after all those years! 

We pick up the story at Numbers 20:2:

2 The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people quarreled with Moses, saying, "If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! 4 Why have you brought the Lord's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? 5 Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!" 6 Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the Lord appeared to them, 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 "You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts." 9 Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" 11 And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. 12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them." 13 Those are the Waters of Merivah—meaning that the Israelites quarreled with the Lord— and through which He affirmed His sanctity.

This incident of “Mey Merivah”/ “The Waters of Merivah", i.e., “the Waters of Strife” is referenced in Psalm 95, the first of the Kabbalat Shabbat psalms that we traditionally read on Friday evening.  However, the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefillah only excerpts the first seven verses of Psalm 95.  I guess the thinking of the editors of our siddur was that they didn’t want to bum us out with the rest of the psalm.  For the remaining verses of Psalm 95, which are included in the various Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox siddurim conclude as follows: 


ח אַל-תַּקְשׁוּ לְבַבְכֶם, כִּמְרִיבָה; כְּיוֹם מַסָּה, בַּמִּדְבָּר.

8 'Harden not your hearts, as at Merivah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness;

ט אֲשֶׁר נִסּוּנִי, אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם: בְּחָנוּנִי, גַּם-רָאוּ פָעֳלִי.

9 when your ancestors tried Me.  They tested Me, even though they had seen My work.

י אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, אָקוּט בְּדוֹר-- וָאֹמַר, עַם תֹּעֵי לֵבָב הֵם;
וְהֵם, לֹא-יָדְעוּ דְרָכָי.

10 For forty years was I wearied with that generation, and said: It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known My ways;

יא אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי בְאַפִּי; אִם-יְבֹאוּן, אֶל-מְנוּחָתִי.

11 Then I swore in My anger,that they should not enter into My resting place.'

The medieval commentators debate amongst themselves about the nature of Moses’ sin at the waters of Merivah that leads God to decree that Moses, like his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron in this week’s Torah portion, would die before reaching the promised land.

But Maimonides’ explanation is the one that resonates most with me.  He says, in his commentary “Shemoneh Perakim” that Moses had profaned the name of God through the sin of anger.  (See Shemoneh Perakim 4:5.

For Maimonides the anger was expressed in Moses exclamation  “Shimu na hamorim!”/ "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" 

But for me it’s that striking of the rock that reminds me of the anger I felt when I struck my viola bow against the music stand all those years ago.

I’ve certainly learned in the years since then that there are better, more effective and, indeed, more moral ways to deal with anger and frustration --- For me that includes journaling, going for a run, taking some deep breaths, talking things over with a loving friend or family member… and I’m sure each of you have your own techniques. 

In Tractate Eruvin, page 65b in the Babylonian Talmud, an insightful (and alliterative) teaching can be found:  We learn there:

א"ר אילעאי בשלשה דברים אדם ניכר בכוסו ובכיסו ובכעסו

Rabbi Ela’I said: A person[’s character] is known through three things:

 “kiso” (his or her “pocket”) – in other words, by how generous we are when it comes to matters of tzedakah.

“Koso” (one’s “cup”) – in other words, by how responsible and moderate we are in our drinking habits, and by extension, how moderate and responsible with respect to all of our drives

--- and –

“Ka’aso” -  One’s anger:  In other words, how we channel and process our moments of rage or frustration so that we keep from hurting others or setting a bad example.

May this Shabbat be a time when we can find – shalom – peace, fulfillment and wholeness ---  a time when any anger or frustration we might be dealing with may be, at least temporarily, defused through the holiness of this weekly foretaste of the world to come.

And may the lessons and the tools of our heritage help us to maintain equanimity and grace throughout the rest of the week and, indeed, throughout our lives.

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg 5772/2012

Posted on July 18, 2012 .