Friday, March 10, 2023 / 17 Adar 5783

Shalom Chaverim,

When I was young and naïve—last week in fact—I recalled how, when I was even younger and more naïve, one of the things that chiefly occupied my time was anger. I was either actually being angry at something or other, or I was consumed with trying to control or dissolve my anger once unloosed.

Years and years ago, I succeeded in making some steady progress toward uprooting anger from my soul, from my behavior, from my psyche…but I hold no illusion: I never actually snuffed it out completely from my being, and that little glowing wick of anger occasionally bursts into a flame.

And so I was concerned on the occasion, last week, that reminded me of my old self, and of my theory back then that anger is a behavior that is learned—and as such can be unlearned. The occasion was seeing my own child lose their temper. I worried: Despite my efforts to the contrary, did this child learn that anger from me? Am I the one who taught – infected – this child with “anger”?

After having studied this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, I now feel at least a week’s worth older and wiser on the subject of anger:

This is what I learned:

God gets angry.

But Moses knows how to calm God down.

God gets angry.

This fact, astounding and perhaps disturbing as it is, does not excuse our own flying off the handle at the slightest pretense—at the idiot who cuts us off in traffic for example, or at choosing the wrong line at the grocery store. But what about the serious things that go wrong that should make us angry – injustice, corruption, bigotry, irresponsibility, lies, war, etc.?

The occasion for this anger of God’s is the incident of the Golden calf. After all God has done for the Israelites—making a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then bringing us from slavery to freedom, sustaining us with manna in the desert and then to top it all off, giving us the Torah: which is likened to a ketuba wedding contract between God and the People of Israel under the chuppa which is Mt. Sinai. After all that, the Israelites go and adulterate themselves at the first opportunity without even having left the chuppa: they worship the egel hazahav, the Golden Calf. Say what you will about God, this anger is justified anger, righteous and right indignation. This is understandable and legitimate anger to the degree that we can relate to it and judge.

It is no contradiction, then, when we learn later in this portion about the famous list of God’s thirteen attributes that we recite on Yom Kippur: Adonai El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, rav chesed v’emet…that God is compassionate and gracious, SLOW TO ANGER, abounding in kindness and Truth.

God is slow to anger, but God’s anger nevertheless exists when it is warranted.

From this we can learn that to get angry is not in of itself a completely bad thing, nor is it an entirely learned behavior: The ability to become angry is part of the essence of who we are, just as it is one of the attributes of God. Like God, though, our anger attribute is only properly contextualized by compassion and graciousness on the one side, and kindness and Truth on the other. Without these qualifiers limiting our anger, making us slow to anger, our anger arrives too quickly, is misplaced, and – ultimately – invalid.

But Moses knows how to calm God down.

This is the other half of the story, inseparable from the first part about God’s anger. How does Moses succeed in calming God down and in what way might this be a model for how we can interact with our loved ones and anyone else whose anger we encounter?

My colleague Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz explains how anger propels us toward either constructive or destructive ends. The choice is up to us. Anger’s destructive aspect is fairly obvious. Anger can be a very positive thing, though, when it moves us beyond the acceptance of evil; when it inspires us to react and to act when circumstances are unjust and wrong and intolerable. I encourage you to read his Ki Tissa commentary on how “Listening to Anger” presents opportunities to help others – and ourselves – calm anger and transform it into a positive motivation.

Anger, then, is an invitation, an opportunity both for the one incensed to rightful anger and for the one who is in a position to calm that anger. May we all learn to be slow to anger. But when anger is justified, may we seize the opportunity to help ourselves and learn to help others direct that anger into a choice towards life and not death; towards listening and calming rather than into contagious bitterness; into a choice not for destruction, but rather to construction of a better situation, a better relationship, a better self, a better nation and a better world.


Rabbi Michael Schwartz