Chukkat offers cautionary tale about giving in to anger

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.


Of all of the emotions with which human beings have been equipped, the one which is the most discomfiting and often the most destructive is anger. Though this emotion – as all other human emotions – can be controlled and can actually be made to work for an individual, there are times when anger takes over, bringing them to rage. It is then that they commit acts in anger which are destructive, whether it is to throw a plate at the wall, slam a fist into a wall or other inanimate object, or tailgate another vehicle which has been driven in some offensive manner. When not properly channeled, anger can have very damaging consequences.

In the middle of this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, Moses’ anger gets the better of him.  It has been a long 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, dealing with all of the complaints and putting down the rebellions which have occurred from time to time. As the Israelites approach the Promised Land, Moses’ sister, Miriam, dies as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Moses and his brother, Aaron, are in mourning.

Following her death, the people notice that for the first time in 40 years, there is no water. It is for this reason that the rabbis said that it was through Miriam’s merit that the Israelites never lacked for water – that, in fact, a well of fresh water followed them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. When she died, the well went dry. The thirsty people turn to their leaders, Moses and Aaron. As they approach, or so the Midrash says, Moses and Aaron believe that the people are coming to pay them a condolence call, to comfort them in their grief from the death of their beloved sister.  Instead, the people begin to complain that they were better off in Egypt, where they had water to drink and fresh food to eat. Any place would be better than this God-forsaken wilderness!

Moses turned to God for guidance, as he had so often over the past 40 years.  God instructed Moses to take his staff and to speak to a nearby rock from which water would flow at his command. Moses took his staff over to the rock.  However, in his frustration and in his rage at the people and their selfishness during his time of grief, Moses does not speak to the rock. Rather he calls the people “rebels” and strikes the rock, not once but twice. Water does come forth from the rock. However, there is a price that Moses and Aaron must pay for Moses’ anger: They will not live to enter the Promised Land, let alone lead the people triumphantly to possess it.

Moses failed to sanctify God’s Name before the Israelites, the text says. By striking the rock instead of speaking to it, he missed the opportunity to teach the people of the power of God. Instead, he taught them of the consequences of anger, both his own and God’s. While it was necessary to strike the first rock from which water came 40 years ago, it was not necessary to do so at this juncture.  It would not be long before the people would be crossing the Jordan River into Canaan to repossess the land given to them by God.  They would have to learn that God was the Provider of all of the blessings which they would enjoy.  By striking the rock, Moses failed to demonstrate that important lesson. Instead, he modeled a behavior in which blessings were dependent upon human action alone, not a partnership between God and humanity.

Moses’ anger got the better of him, and, as a result, he forfeited reaching his goal. The people, too, failed to learn an important lesson about the Source of their blessings. It is doubtful that Moses felt much better after striking the rock, for acting out of anger rarely assuages this powerful emotion. The person who strikes the wall only hurts his or her fist and has to repair the hole in the wall afterwards. The person who gives in to road rage has endangered not only his or her own life (and that of his or her passengers) but the occupants of the other car and perhaps even other motorists on the road.  Smashing a plate results not in a solution to the problem, but a mess and the loss of something that was part of a set, now one piece short.

How does one utilize one’s anger in a constructive fashion?  When one turns it into an impetus to make the world better, by providing a positive example for others to follow, by sharing one’s feelings with others in such a manner as to diffuse the situation and to communicate how one has been offended by the actions of another.  “Counting to 10” is cliche, but it does help to control one’s anger before it takes control and damages precious possessions, precious lives or precious relationships. 

“Taking a deep breath” provides for a cleansing of the emotion – not to deny its existence but to find a means by which to let it out slowly without doing harm.

Had Moses been able to say, “These people are tired, thirsty and afraid of what will happen to them, and they require my leadership despite my grief at the moment. If I am able to meet their needs, then they will be better equipped to enable me to meet mine.  Let me get them something to drink, and they will then console me,” then the story might have ended differently.

It is natural to become angry at times of great frustration, disappointment or anguish. Anger is a powerful emotion which can be utilized for good and for ill.  If one is able to communicate one’s anger in an effective and constructive manner, then one can do great things.  For example, anger at a disease can cause one to seek a cure or to enable an expert to do so.  Anger can bring about great changes in society, if channeled in the proper directions. When utilized in this fashion, it brings everyone closer to the Promised Land of the future – the World to Come.         

Shabbat Shalom!