Yossi Goldin
Yossi Goldin

Parenting from the Parsha: Parshat Chukat — the perils of anger

One of the most perplexing stories in the Torah is the story of Moshe hitting the rock. Shortly after the death of Miriam, the Torah relates that Am Yisrael once again complains over a lack of water. Hashem commands Moshe and Aharon to take the staff, gather the nation, and speak to a rock in order to bring forth water. Moshe takes the staff, gathers the nation, admonishes them for their actions, and strikes the rock twice, after which water pours out for the nation. Immediately afterwards, G-d informs Moshe and Aharon that, since they “did not believe in Me and sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel”, they will not be privileged to lead the nation into Eretz Yisrael.

The meforshim struggle to understand the exact nature and severity of Moshe’s sin. While Moshe clearly disobeyed Hashem by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, why was this was so problematic — to the extent that G-d refers to it as a “lack of belief in Him”, and decrees that, as a result of this very act, Moshe and Aharon will not be able to lead Am Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael?

The Rambam, in his sefer Shemona Perakim, suggests a novel interpretation to this entire episode. He explains that Moshe’s hitting of the rock was not the root sin, but rather a symptom of a greater transgression on Moshe’s part- his loss of temper and his movement to anger. Quoting the opening reprimand that Moshe delivers to the people before hitting the rock, “Listen here, you rebels”, the Rambam notes that Moshe failed to maintain the proper emotional equilibrium required of a Jewish leader as the ultimate role model for the people. In addition, the Rambam posits, Moshe’s sin was exacerbated because Am Yisrael saw him as a representative of Hashem. They therefore interpreted Moshe’s anger as symbolic of G-d’s anger towards them — which in this instance was incorrect, as there is no indication in the text that Hashem was angry at Am Yisrael for their complaints in this case. By setting a bad personal example and by misrepresenting G-d’s feelings to the nation, Moshe caused the profanation of G-d’s name — and was therefore punished with HaShem’s refusal to allow him to lead the people into Eretz Yisrael.

In his Mishna Torah Hilchos Deos 2:3, the Rambam goes even further in his discussion regarding the perils of anger. After outlining his famous rule regarding character traits to always follow the middle path, known as the “golden mean”; the Rambam adds that there are two character traits that are exceptions to the rule- traits which a person should try to rid himself of completely — haughtiness and anger. A person should strive to never be angered even by things which could cause justifiable anger. Even in situations where anger seems necessary for purposes of chinuch or communal leadership, one should only appear angry in order to accomplish the desired goal, but not feel anger in his heart. Anger is such a damaging and dangerous trait, the Rambam maintains, that one should strive to purge himself of it entirely.

We can take the Rambam’s ideas one step further and use them to explain a number of other details of this story. Perhaps we can suggest that Moshe’s anger causes, not only his verbal reaction to the nation, but also his hitting of the rock, itself. One of the byproducts of a loss of temper is that an individual loses control of himself, resulting in unintended statements and actions. Perhaps, in his frustration, Moshe lost control of his actions, and hit the rock instead of speaking to it, as G-d had commanded.  Based on this understanding, we can also suggest that G-d’s reaction to Moshe’s action was more a recognition of reality than a punishment. Once Moshe lost his temper and allowed his anger to overcome him in such a public fashion, G-d concluded that he was no longer fit to bring the nation into Eretz Yisrael. The leader who would bring the people into the promised land had to able contain his emotions, particularly in the public arena — and Moshe, at this point in his career, appeared unable to do so.

Dealing with our own anger/frustration as we raise our children can be particularly challenging. Parenthood grants us a certain level of authority — and when we feel that this authority is challenged, or when we feel disrespected, we are naturally moved to anger. We become frustrated when our children fail to listen to us — and we often react by yelling at them or punishing them for their actions. We then justify our actions by rationalizing that we are simply being mechanech our kids, and therefore the anger is justified.

However, Rav Wolbe, in his sefer Zria U’binyan B’Chinuch, argues that this a classic example where chinuch is used to cover up parents’ own deficiencies. In most cases, when parents lose their temper at their kids, Rabbi Wolbe maintains, it’s about the parent’s own ego. The true motivation behind the anger is the parents’ frustration and their sense of being disrespected. Even worse, argues Rav Wolbe, in such situations we tend to lose sight of the actual children in front of us — viewing them instead as the objects through which we can regain our own sense of pride and respect — by punishing them or lashing out at them. Actual chinuch of our kids is often the last thing on our minds.

To go a step further, anger towards our children can have unpredictable consequences. As we mentioned above, when individuals are moved to anger, they tend to lose control of themselves, and often say and do things they later regret. Particularly regarding our children, we must be extremely careful about the things we say or do to them — as we can never realize the long-term ramifications of our comments or actions.

Finally, when it comes to educating our kids about Judaism and mitzvot, we must be even more careful concerning our reactions to them. Just as Moshe represented Hashem to the nation, on some level, we represent G-d to our children. If we react in the religious arena with anger and irritation, they may mistakenly infer that Hashem is angry at them as well, which may cause a lasting impact on their own personal relationship with Hashem.  Or, reacting to our anger, they may become resentful of religion, with lasting implications, as well.

Of course, as the Rambam himself points out, there are times when a display of anger is justified, or even warranted, for the sake of educating our kids. One example that comes to mind is if a young child runs into the street. In that, and similar, situations it is crucial that the parent help the child understand the severity of his/her actions for his/her own safety. Even in those cases, however, we should only display the anger on the outside, for the sake of the child. Inside, however, we should not feel real anger towards the child- only love and compassion.

To be sure- controlling our anger, particularly in the realm of parenting, is extremely challenging. The natural reaction when our children disobey or disregard us is to get upset at them, and act accordingly. Particularly as our children grow older and begin to assert their independence, we may feel a lack of control, with the resulting frustration. However, the first step towards improving our behavior in this area is to recognize the true source of our anger.  Invariably, it is our own ego and personal pride. And while we may justify our actions in the name of chinuch, often our anger has the opposite effect, and hurts our ability to properly educate our kids.

Thousands of years ago, our greatest leader made the mistake of allowing his anger to get the better of him — causing G-d to decide that he was not the appropriate person to lead the nation into Eretz Yisrael. Many years later, we must be mindful of the hazards of anger and all that comes with it- particularly as we struggle to educate our kids in the most positive way possible.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and Yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at yossigoldin@gmail.com.
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