God passed by before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The Eternal God, the Eternal God, omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous love and truth. Who remembers deeds of love for thousands [of generations], forgiving sin, rebellion and error. Who does not clear [those who do not repent], but keeps in mind the sins of the fathers to their children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generation.”
Our Torah begins this week with Moses still atop Mount Sinai completing his receiving of the Law. It has been over a month that Moses was away from the newly redeemed Children of Israel. While he is in the presence of the Divine, the people below grow impatient. They demand of Aaron, Moses’ brother, that an idol be built so that they might have a god to worship. The Golden Calf is built. God tells Moses what has happened below and threatens to destroy them. But Moses argues that to do so would be to admit to their previous captors that God, with such great power and omniscience, cannot control a relatively small group of people. Moses reminds the Divine of the relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God rescinds the threat.
Moses brings the stone Tablets of the Covenant down from the mountain. Now, with his own eyes, he sees the idolatrous practices of his kinsfolk. It is now he who becomes enraged, and in a great fit of anger, shatters the Tablets, burns the golden idol, and makes it into a powder, mixes it with water, and forcing the Israelites to drink it. He sees the sins performed by the Israelites and pleads with God to forgive them. Some punishment is doled out, but the people live on. It is then we hear not Moses describe God, but God describe the nature of Divinity:
“The Eternal God, the Eternal God, omnipotent, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with tremendous love and truth. Who remembers deeds of love for thousands [of generations], forgiving sin, rebellion and error.
To be Divine is to be merciful and kind; to be slow to anger; to have the capacity to forgive. But both God and Moses demonstrate that neither is free from immediate reaction nor emotion. Both are quick to anger. Both rush to judgement and are ready to punish. But both agree that cooler heads prevail. In one instance, Moses reminds God of the Divine relationship between God and the Children of Israel. In the other, God articulates to Moses the proper way to treat these Children.
We, human beings created in the Divine Image, need to remember this description of God. It does not exempt sinners from being punished, but neither does it encourage us to let our anger to rush to summary judgement.
Probably the most difficult thing we can experience in our lives is being hurt in some fashion and then, in the face of anger, frustration, and pain, not lash out.
As I might have shared with some of you, my grandfather was killed in a drunk driving accident. He was driving on the New York Thruway and a drunk driver on the opposite side of the highway crossed over, killing him instantly. My uncle, then a police officer, was called to the hospital to identify the body. After doing so, he asked about the other driver. He was told that the driver survived and was upstairs in the hospital. My uncle had a gun on his person. He went upstairs with rage in his heart—but with the greatest amount of strength he could muster, he kept his sidearm holstered. Over time, he funneled and transformed his anger, an anger that my whole family shared, and used his skill as a writer to write a book about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Can you just imagine? Not only being so distraught and in pain, but knowing where your father’s killer is, and addition having the means and opportunity to avenge his death, but then restraining yourself from turning one great tragedy into an even greater one. At the time that my grandfather was taken from me, I was a young teenager, and I only came to know these other details later in life. But I am grateful that my uncle had the strength to not rush to tragic action.
Being “slow to anger” is a nice mantra to work on, but in practice, many of us find that we are actually quick to anger. What needs to be tempered and reflected upon is how to respond to such anger. In the world of science fiction, we see characters like Spock in Star Trek, whose species evolved to a point where they saw that emotions were ultimately dangerous and needed to be purged from society. Or if you prefer Star Wars, there are Jedi Knights, who are to purge their baser emotions, become monastic, so that they might be focused and defend the light side of the force to protect the universe from the dark side. Why is this a theme that comes up in so much of fiction?
Authors, film makers, poets, all concede that emotions drive humans to do things that can be downright stupid, let alone harmful or awful. Many posit that in the future, perhaps we will be driven to the point that, like in Huxley’s “Brave New World,” it is better to have a society under severe control and the only way to get there is to eliminate feeling. Ultimately, authors point to that which we know to be true: It is not emotions that are the cause of our woes—it is the way we respond to those emotions.
God does not say that the Divine doesn’t become angry. Rather, there is the suggestion that God is but, “slow to anger.” Or that at least that is the ideal state. Anger serves a purpose, when it drives us to do good things. When we see acts of bigotry, racism, homophobia, we should be angry. But that should not drive us to meeting violent rhetoric and hate with more violent rhetoric and hate. Rather, we should channel our anger towards reasoned response.
This is especially true when our only awareness of what is happening in the world comes from one source or from only one vantage point. For example, it is very easy to point to events half way around the world in the Middle East and claim that everyone there acts in one way or believes one thing and therefore we should treat them in one way. As evidenced by what just transpired in Egypt, not all in the Arab world are fighting to support dictatorships, caliphates, or theocracies. As a nation, Egypt has shown herself to be dynamic, and should give hope to everyone around the world that people have great potential for change and growth.
Take our relationship with the modern State of Israel. Because we do not live there, we only know about what is happening there through those media devices to which we avail ourselves. We become narrow and wind up taking one position or another, which often leads to anger and resentment: “How can you feel that way?” “How can you support that organization?”… and so on. This is why instead of letting anger get the better of us, we can do positive things involving dialogue. This is why we are holding a panel discussion on what it means to be “Pro-Israel” here on Sunday, March 6 at 6:30 p.m. with three panel members who represent a wide diversity on this subject. Being angry means that we care about something. But being slow to anger means that we don’t let that anger get the better of us, but rather we work towards a positive resolution and greater understanding.
The Divine is willing to forgive “sin, rebellion and error.” As human beings, we are not only allowed to sin, rebel, and err, it is expected. It is what makes us human. None of us are flawless. But we become closer to the Divine ideal when we try to fight against our nature to better ourselves and be a beacon of hope for others. Anger stirs within each of us for a host of reasons. When we allow it to get the better of us, like Moses, we can act rashly, destroying something precious. After Moses destroys the Tablets of the Covenant, God tells Moses to carve two new Tablets. The Divine Promise is not forgotten. We can repair and rebuild. We can learn and grow.
But first, we need to learn how to better become “slow to anger.” This is one of the reasons we gather here to pray. We congregate in solidarity in order that we can be a group of human beings who learn to center ourselves. Prayer is a bridge towards a human ideal that individually we try to build, but collectively can unite and finish. It is easy to think that each of us is on a unique path, and that our pain and frustration is singular. When we realize that we are not alone feeling what we do, we can let go of our rashness and impulsive reactivity. We can breathe together, knowing that when anger plagues our hearts, it is not something new. We can share our experiences and learn from one another. This is the value of not simply living in a community, but being a full, active part in that community.
Moses had a daunting task of leading a community of “stiff-necked people.” It caused him great frustration and anger. Eventually that frustration would block him from entering the Promised Land. What is the Promised Land? That place in our hearts which feels but doesn’t consume us. It is a place of understanding and empathy. And it is a place where we might find wholeness and peace, if we just make the effort to become a little “slower to anger.”
May we find on this Shabbat a space and a place in which we can slow down, reflect, and better understand the fire in each of our hearts, and diminish the fire enough so that instead of a burning pain, it brings us a warmth of eventual enlightenment.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.