On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Slowing Ourselves to Anger - parashat Ki Tisa

What is the Jewish approach to anger? How do we deal with it in a way that’s healthy? This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs explores Parashah Ki Tisa and explores God’s anger toward the Israelites for their idolatry as well as the impact that our own anger can have on ourselves.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi f Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Ki Tisa. And he asks us to think about anger, how we experience it, and what happens when we do.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Ki Tisa from the Book of Exodus. It is one of the most dramatic portions in the whole Hebrew Bible. So we have the infamous story of the golden calf.

And I just would set the scene. Of course, many of us know the whole setting is chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. And in that chapter, we have this remarkable moment when God, basically, says to Moses, I see that this is a stiff-necked people. And then God says, now, let me be that my anger may blaze forth against them, that I may destroy them and make of you a great nation.

This all happens because God is, of course, omniscient. God sees and knows everything. God is aware that the people have made a golden calf.

Moses is not yet aware up on the mountain in communion with God. And so Moses is remarkable. Moses says to God-- just imagine that God's having an explosion of anger.

And Moses says, let not your anger, God, blaze forth. These are the people you delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and a great mighty hand. Can imagine a human being calming God down, talking God down from the anger that is, potentially, going to consume the entire Jewish people, the Israelites, wandering in the desert?

Well, that's not the end of the story. Then it continues. And of course, there's the moment when Moses finally sees what God has been seeing before and says, as soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became enraged and hurled the tablets from his hands. And they shattered at the foot of the mountain.

We have, in this dramatic section of the Torah, an unbelievably powerful expression of anger, first divine anger and then human anger. And I'd like, during the podcast, to explore-- not in an angry way but in a kind of measured way-- what do we do with anger?

I don't know where you live. But I feel like this moment is so filled with anger. And sometimes it takes just a word to trigger anger. You mention anything political in even the most calm settings, you know, chatting with somebody on a train or a plane or with friends at a restaurant-- it doesn't matter where you are in the political spectrum. You could be left, right, center-- anger blazes forth.

People become enraged. So I want to think about, what do we do with that? What does our tradition do with that? Because this is the epicenter of our tradition's focus on anger.

So just a few frames from the Jewish tradition, in the Babylonian Talmud and tractate beitzah. Page 113B, it says, the life of those who can't control their anger is not a life. Pretty damning, all right. And then it says-- and here's the connection between anger and idol worship.

In Shabbat 105B, it says, it is also written that breaking things when angry is as sinful as idol worship. There is the connection. So we have the sin of the golden calf, the idol worshipping, and the anger that it causes. They are connected.

We have-- in another tractate, it says, one who becomes angry, if he is wise, his wisdom leaves him or her. We also have this great teaching in the Babylonian Talmud that you can understand and know somebody by three things, by their Ki, their Cos, and their chas.

Ki is their pocket, or their pocket book. Cos is their cup, and chas is their anger. So by how they spend money, by how they handle drinking, and how they handle their anger, that's one very powerful way that you can get to know somebody. In the Pirkei Avot, the saying of the sages, we have this whole litany.

Ben Zoma says, who is wise, the person learns from every person. Then it says, who is mighty? The one who subdues his or her inclination. And then the proof text from Proverbs, which is so great, which says, the one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty. And that person rules their spirit in a way that is comparable to the one who conquers a city.

So being in control of one's anger is an extraordinarily important thing, according to our ancient sages. But actually, how do we do it? I don't know about you, but there are times when, yes, Rabbi Jacobs, have you lost your temper? Have you been angry?

Of course, we all have. And different triggers set us off. So amazingly, there is a whole tradition in Judaism called Musar, which is a whole tradition of ethical practice. How does a person grow their ethical sensitivity in everyday life?

And there are a lot of great teachers. Alan Morinis is one of those teachers. And he reflects on his teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein prayer. And it has this beautiful teaching that, what is the key Musar practice around anger? To have a space between the match and the fuse, right.

I mean, you can have a match. But if it lights the fuse, you go into full DEFCON 5. You know, your anger is just blazing forth. And then there are the couple of these amazing practices.

So he tells a story about a Hasidic leader who would dispense holy water, guaranteed to eliminate all domestic conflicts. And whenever a husband or a wife had an urge to argue, the goal was to take some of that holy water into his or her mouth without swallowing it for as long as possible. What happened? The holy water prevented the person from expressing their anger. And so just holding that water, holding one's anger back, allowed someone to calm down.

Just another one, Yisrael Salanter, one of the great founders of the Musar movement, talks about a person, a man, who is insulted by his wife. So what did he do? He went and slept in a cemetery.

Why? Because he didn't want to think that the pride was probably the thing that caused him to get really angry. So he wanted to go kind of dissipate that anger.

I want to call attention. While we're thinking about anger and Musar, there's a phenomenal new book called the Musar Torah Commentary. It's edited by my colleague, Rabbi Barry Block. And it is an extraordinary collection.

On Ki Tisa, this week's parashah that we're talking about, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Mari Chernow, from Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona has a beautiful chapter about chas, the value of anger, what one does about it and how one controls it. So if the Musar tradition that reflecting a little bit of here is of interest, this book, published by the CCAR press, basically, on each parashat pulls out a piece of Musar Torah that could help us live more meaningful lives.

I want to just sort of call out that, if we think about driving-- I don't know where you get most angry, but I and, evidently, a lot of other people get really worked up driving a car. Did you know that 51% of respondents to this AAA survey said that they get so angry when they drive that they tailgate on purpose?

That would amount to about 104 million American drivers. Imagine that. And 47% of those polled say they yell at other drivers when they're behind the wheel. 45% of the drivers honk in anger or annoyance. That's a huge number also, about 91 million people. 33%, or 67 million, drivers gesture obscenely while they're driving.

This is-- this is just getting around. And it's just one of the places where anger can be expressed. Sometimes we see it in stores or in other settings. But there's something about driving that just brings that out.

So the question is, for each of us, f about when's the last time you kind of lost her temper? If there was such a time-- and if you're someone who's not understanding what I'm talking about because you never do, can we all get your email and phone number because we want to contact you and find out how you do it. But the truth is, for a lot of us, it's the goal.

So there's also, in the Torah portion, as I mentioned, the very opening, this idea that God gets angry. Well, if God gets angry, why should I feel badly that I get angry? I mean, we're all working on it.

And so the Jewish tradition's response to kind of curbing our anger is to be slow to anger, the midah, the sort of the ethical category is erech apayim. And that means someone who is slow to anger. So we also have, in this week's parashah in chapter 34 verse 6, we have this phenomenally beautiful description of who God is.

Adonai, Adonai, A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, and extends kindness to thousand generation. So we aspire to be like God, who is slow to anger. And another one of these tricks that I'll just give you-- again, trick, It's a spiritual practice-- is from a text known as the [HEBREW], which is the beginning of wisdom. It's a medieval Jewish text. And the text teaches another strategy to be slow to anger. And it says, "decide on a sum of money that you will give away if you allow yourself to lose your temper." It says, "be sure that the amount you designate is sufficient to force you to think twice before you lose your temper. And over the next month, every time you express anger that is out of proportion to an incident, make a donation to charity."

So these are really concrete strategies, not just like, oh, gosh. I'm going to try and do better. I'm going to try to drive and just do my Lamaze breathing while I'm driving. I'm going to try to be very calm.

What if we had tzedakah that we committed to give if we lost our temper? What about some holy water to put in our mouth that would keep us from saying things before we could calm down to, in a sense, create a little bit more space between the match and the fuse? All these things to help us live a life of greater spiritual practice.

So when we think about the story of the golden calf, when we think about God losing God's temper, when we think of Moses, Moses smashes the Ten Commandments-- things break and are torn apart from anger. And a life of holiness, a life of goodness, is about trying to harness some of those other instincts.

And you know, sometimes we think living a meaningful Jewish life is, of course, lighting candles on Shabbat, and being appreciative of our blessings, and praying, and studying, and doing all those things. But it also is about trying to really live our best lives, our best selves, our best instincts. And sometimes we could use some help.

I know I can. So I'd say, let's not just tell the story of the golden calf. Let's not just tell the story of the anger that's expressed. Let's learn something practical for each of our lives for the relationships that we have with our family, and with our friends, and with our colleagues.

And that's, at the end of the day, what living a life of holiness and goodness is all about. And we're probably going to get angry at some point. Let's be slower to be angry. And let's do everything we can to center ourselves to be both resilient, keep calm, to keep our focus, and to not tear things apart because of that frustration and the anger.

And when we're out talking about politics with our friends and our family and people start to turn beet red, we can, maybe, quietly interject that there are spiritual practices that might help all of us in our society, and our countries, and our world. Take a deep breath, and lessen the anger. And increase the holiness.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You could download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter @urjpresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat.