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Anger is One Letter Short of Danger- a perspective on Matot/Masey

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

There is a lot of anger in this week’s Torah portion.  Beginning with verbal commitments made by women which can be nullified by the men in their lives, to revenge taken against the Midianites, to the tribes that want to stay on the east side of the Jordan.  Protection is prescribed for those who are guilty of manslaughter to save them from the vengefulness of their bereaved relatives, and concerns about land disappearing from a tribal allotment by females who might choose to marry outside their own extended family.  It seems like everyone has a reason to be angry.

The rabbis suggest that we can assess a personality based on 3 qualities- “Koso, keeso, and kaaso,” that is- koso- their cup.  Listen carefully to what someone says when their lips have been loosened by drink.  Keeso- their pocket, i.e.- follow the money.  If you want to know someone’s priorities, look at their checkbook.  AND- Kaaso- their anger- what makes someone angry and how do they handle it?

Anger is not always a bad thing.  When a young child learns to say, “No!,” when they stomp their feet and shake their heads,  they are coming to understand themselves as independent human beings with minds of their own.  When we are angry at injustice in the world, we are motivated to work towards tikkun olam, towards repair of what is wrong.  Anger calls to our attention that there is something that needs attention.

The issue becomes, what happens when we are consumed by anger?  When we can’t let go of a story that fuels our hostility?  When our anger blinds us to reality and overwhelms our ability to respond appropriately?  What causes us to be angry- criticism, disobedience, jealousy, competition, unfairness, the sense that we are not being seen and heard and understood?  How can we react in such a way that anger fuels appropriate, positive, and helpful responses?

One thing about anger- anger often conceals a sense of hurt.  Anger, in fact, may be a disguised request.  It seems counterintuitive, but when someone speaks or acts in anger or frustration, they may really be saying “Please!” Consider the please when a child says, “We NEVER get to do what I want to do!” The child is saying, “Please, I want fairness and fun. I want to know that you care about my needs, too.”

What are our options INSTEAD of anger?  Imagine an alternative response, such as admitting our guilt or accepting criticism, owning our arrogance and focusing on a greater sense of humility. Would speaking softly and calmly help diffuse the conflict and bring it to a more satisfactory resolution? Would delaying our response have helped us to  gain a better perspective of the situation, allowing us to respond calmly and more effectively?  The next time someone expresses their disappointment, frustration, or anger toward you, take a moment to consider the “please” behind their words. When we do this, we have a much greater opportunity to resolve conflicts peacefully.  What do they REALLY want?  What hurt is the anger expressing?

We see many occasions on which God expresses frustration and anger with the Jewish people and with humanity at large.  Yet, in describing God’s own nature, God includes among God’s attributes- “erech apayim,” being slow to anger.  That is God’s goal and it is a good goal for us as well.  God prays, according to the Talmud,  “May it be My will that My mercy should overcome My anger and that My mercy dominate My attributes.  May I act with My children with the attribute of mercy, and go beyond the requirements of the law.”  Even God struggles with controlling anger- no wonder it’s a challenge for US too!

May we all be blessed with an abundance of compassion in all our relationships to act with the attribute of mercy with each other, remembering that the word “anger” is one letter short of danger.  While sometimes there is good reason to be angry, we should be certain, as our president Janice Dinner wrote to us last week, that our disagreements are a “machloket l’shem shamayim,” that is, disagreements in service of holiness.  This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh the beginning of the month of Av, as we are in the final days before Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  The rabbis tell us that the second temple was destroyed because of “sinavat chinam,” senseless hatred.  It will be rebuilt, according to Rav Kook, 1st chief rabbi of the state of Israel, because of “ahavat chinam,” senseless love.  Less anger, less danger, more love- a new month with new opportunity!



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