Matthew L Berkowitz
Rabbi Berkowitz serves as Vice President of Schechter Institutes, Inc.

Israel’s anger

Kfar Aza. (courtesy)
Kfar Aza. (courtesy)

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 more rational way? It is a moment pregnant with possibility. 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 do we listen 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.

On a personal note, I am currently struggling with Israel’s anger and justified response to October 7th.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of going to Kfar Aza.  At the invitation of one of our students, Anati Alkabetz, who lost her daughter Sivan, the staff of The Schechter Institutes bore witness to the atrocities of October 7th. Anati & her remarkable husband Shimon shared their family & community’s story with us…and took us through a heartbreaking exhibit which they placed in the home in which Sivan and her boyfriend, Naor, were brutally murdered. 62 victims at Kfar Aza … along with others still being held hostage. Minutes into Shimon speaking to us a ‘red alert’ sounded warning us of an incoming Hamas rocket. We had seconds to cram ourselves into a shelter. One feels the horror of Kishinev & Auschwitz in this place. One imagines the audio that is missing — the evil rampage of 300 terrorists that murdered, raped and destroyed lives and property; the blood-curdling cries of the victims (many of whom were 22 and 23 year olds with their lives ahead of them); the crackling heat of the arson that incinerated the bodies of whole families and young and elderly Israelis; yes, all we have are silent testimony to horror …Lest there be any doubt about the rightfulness and justice of Israel defending itself. Tragically the world has a short memory when it comes to Jews.

This is an important reminder of the evil that exists in this world.  And so part of me responds forcefully in the words of the Haggadah, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations which do not know You and upon governments which have not called upon Your Name.  For the enemy has consumed Jacob and destroyed his refuge (Psalms 79:6-7).  Pour out your wrath upon them and let Your rage overpower them (Psalms 69:25).  Angrily pursue them and erase them from under God’s sky (Lamentations 3:66).  And yet . . .

I, too, am horrified by civilian Palestinian suffering.  The images of Palestinians stampeding for humanitarian supplies and the lives lost is painful to me (and should be painful to every Jew and human).  On some level, it doesn’t matter that every life lost in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas (a truth I subscribe to wholeheartedly).  In addition to the voice of vengeance, there is a profound Jewish voice in me that cries out ‘stop the madness.’  בנפול אויבך אל תשמח One cannot rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemies (Proverbs 24:17).

The anger and loss I am feeling these days is mourning for the loss of hope and optimism. Palestinians need to learn to love themselves far more than they hate us; and Israelis need to break free of the cycle of trauma that plagues and paralyzes our every move.  Yes, we live in a dangerous world that contains real evil (and that evil needs to be confronted and wiped out).  But the moment we let our anger conquer us such that we lose our Jewish souls, then we have truly let the enemy defeat us.

About the Author
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz is the Vice President of Schechter Institutes, Inc. He served as JTS Director of Israel Programs and is a co-founder and partner of Kol HaOt, a Jerusalem-based venture devoted to exploring the arts and Jewish learning. For ten years (1999-2009), Matt was the JTS Senior Rabbinic Fellow, organizing substantive adult learning throughout Florida and beyond. He is a member of The Wexner Heritage Program Faculty. He completed his undergraduate work in International Relations and Middle East Studies, summa cum laude, at Colgate University. He was ordained from JTS in 1999, is a Wexner Graduate Fellow alumnus and an alumnus of the Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Institute, Class V. An accomplished artist, he was formally trained in Jewish scribal art in Jerusalem and completed the writing of Megillat Esther, the illumination of several ketubbot, and a limited edition artist portfolio entitled Passover Landscapes: Illuminations on the Exodus which was acquired by Yale University, exhibited at Yeshiva University Museum (April, 2006) and is on permanent exhibit at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Lovell Haggadah, published in 2008 by The Schechter Institutes and Nirtzah Editions, is based on this work. In 2008-2009, he studied illustration and oil painting at The Jerusalem Studio School. He designed a collection of mezuzot, tzedakah boxes, and other fusions of art and Jewish learning.
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