Listening to Anger

Ki Tissa By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 13, 2004 / 5764

Anger is a powerful emotion – propelling us toward constructive or destructive ends. The path to either of the latter however is chosen immediately in the aftermath of our fury. Will we simply be reactive in the moment and allow our wrath the power it seeks? Or will we rise above ourselves in an attempt to be self differentiated – to see the larger picture – and then act in a rational way? It is a moment pregnant with possibility. Our parashah this week, Parashat Ki Tissa, provides us with an invaluable lesson in anger management from God’s perspective. More importantly, it gives us insight into reflective listening and what it truly means to be in a covenantal relationship.

Having despaired of Moses’ return from the summit of Sinai, the people take matters into their own hands and prevail upon Aaron to make a god. Aaron accedes to their request and a chaotic frenzy ensues as the Israelites declare a golden calf to be their god. In the midst of this tragic episode, God commands Moses to return to the foot of the mountain declaring, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely . . . I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:7-10). Note well that God 1) disowns the Israelites, 2) turns the notion of the exodus on its head by saying it is you, Moses, who took them out of Egypt, and 3) tells Moses to “let Me alone” so that God may annihilate the Israelites. Moses, in turn, proves himself to be an effective listener and powerful intercessor as he negates every one of God’s three gestures. Moses responds, “Let not your anger . . . blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand . . . turn from your blazing wrath and renounce the plan to punish your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel . . .” (Exodus 32:11-13). Moses 1) forces God to reclaim possession of the Israelites, 2) makes it abundantly clear that God liberated the Israelites from Egypt – not Moses and 3) rather than accede to God’s request, Moses hears and acts on deeper level.

God’s cry is a plea for help. Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator underscores this profound reading of the text. In his comment on Exodus 32:10, Rashi writes, “by saying ‘let Me alone’ God opened the door to Moses, intimating that if Moses prayed for them, God would not destroy them.” How often do we find ourselves in God’s shoes, flaming with uncontrollable anger and seeking to destroy – but in truth crying out for help? Or how often do we find ourselves in the role of Moses – seeking to listen and quell the anger of a dear friend, family member or colleague? Are we seeking a constructive path to wrestle with our anger and seek positive resolutions? And how we are listening to the words of those in pain?

Like Moses, each of us is eminently capable of taking on the role of reflective listener – and helping another to both quell anger and act rationally. And like God, we must realize that to be in a covenantal relationship requires taking the idea of relationship seriously. God listens to Moses and ultimately renounces his punishment – opting to build a future with Moses and the Israelites.

May each of us learn to pause in our anger, to listen compassionately, and to remember the importance of relationships in our lives – with friends, with family and with God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.