Joyful rebuke and destructive anger

“Moshe and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’” (Bamidbar 20,10).

In only a matter of a few pages, 40 years in the desert have passed. But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The stubbornness of the nation, and their brazenness towards their leaders, is unfortunately as present as ever. 

But this time, the reactions of Moshe and Aharon are different, and their response to the complaints of the people will change the course of our story drastically.

The text tells us that the nation arrived in the Tzin Desert and rested in Kadesh. Suddenly, with no prior warning, we are told that Miriam passed on, and that she was buried in that place. Her death outside of Canaan foreshadows the fate of her brothers, as neither Aharon nor Moshe will reach the Holy Land.

Immediately after Miriam’s death, the very next passage tells us that there was no water. Of course, there was no water, they were in the middle of the desert! Where did they get their water before, and where has it gone? From here the Sages learn that the miraculous well that followed the nation in the desert was in the merit of Miriam, and thus is called Be’er Miriam, Miriam’s well. Upon her death though, the well dries up. 

Immediately, the nation complains harshly to Moshe: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Bamidbar 20,5).

Moshe and Aharon respond by falling on their faces, seemingly in prayer or despair. The Divine presence appears to them, and tells them to order the rock to bring forth water; even though they are told to bring the staff, it’s clear that a verbal directive to the rock is what God is asking for.

“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their animals” (Bamidbar 20,8).

But Moshe deviates from God’s command; instead of speaking to the rock, he screams out in anger at the nation: “Listen up you rebels! Do you think it is Aharon and I who bring forth water? Only God brings forth water!” And then Moshe struck the rock not once, but twice. 

Water does flow from the rock, but God is not pleased with Moshe’s actions, and the punishment is exceedingly harsh: he now will not enter the holy land. The reason: you did not bring the nation to believe in me. Your deviation from my instructions wasted an opportunity to sanctify my name, says God, and in truth you have desecrated it. 

The Torah commentators wrestle with these passages, trying to understand what exactly was the sin that brought on this severe decree. Was it hitting the rock? Was it anger?

According to the Maharal, it was a lack of joy. He explains that experiencing a miracle should arouse a great sense of joy, as joy is the emotional expression of faith. But Moshe did not express joy; he expressed anger.  Anger is an emotion that illustrates a lack of faith. And so in Moshe’s angry chastising of the nation, he not only deviates from God’s instruction; he illustrates a lack of faith in front of the entire nation. And thus, instead of drawing the nation after God by speaking to the rock joyfully, Moshe led them away from God with his anger and rebuke.

The Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev shares a similar point relating to this story. He explains that there are two ways one can give rebuke. The first is to give rebuke with great joy, and to express to the person the exalted level of their soul. This, he teaches, will lift the person up to their potential and return them to God. But there is another type of rebuke done with anger, which embarrasses the person, and makes them feel lowly until they do as they are told. The first model, the model which is done with love and joy, he teaches, is the one which is fitting for a true leader of Israel.

Though this approach certainly resonates with me as a teacher, it resonates on a deeper level as a parent. I find that it is so easy to fall into the pitfall of anger and negative rebuke, as opposed to guidance and instruction with love and joy. And it brings up a difficult question: is anger truly effective, even if I get what I want from my kid at that moment? In the end, joy builds, and anger destroys. This is why the Rambam is so adamant that anger has no place in one’s character. And so too we see this in our story; Moshe’s anger destroys his opportunity to enter the Holy Land.

And though completely ridding ourselves of anger may be unrealistic, (even Moshe Rabeinu did not achieve this!) we can certainly try with our kids, our spouses, our siblings, and with our students, to inspire with words of joy, and not to chastise with anger. We can work to build each other up, as well as ourselves, with joy and faith.

What do you think? Is anger wholly destructive, or is there a place for anger that is appropriate at certain specific times? If yes, what times would those be?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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