Why It’s a Sin to Work in the Foreign Service (Shabbos 105)

The Israelites were thirsty.  Miriam had passed from this world and her demise brought with it the disappearance of her miraculous well of water.  Standing before Moshe were hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and livestock, sweltering under the hot desert sun, their throats parched and dry.  The din of complaining Jews was getting louder and louder.  Moshe turned his eyes heavenward and received the instruction from God: Speak to the rock and it will issue forth water.

But the noise was becoming unbearable.  ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ he wondered.  And then, his innermost thoughts got the better of him and he announced how he was feeling to the crowd, “Listen here, you rebels, watch as I give you water from this rock!”

And then, overcome by his anger, he smote the rock.  Not once, but twice.  Momentarily, he forgot his instructions God had given him to speak to the rock.  And he took out the rage he was feeling towards all these ungrateful people upon the rock in front of him.

God’s response came loud and clear: “Since you were not trusting with Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land that I have given to them.”

Moshe had been a faithful shepherd for forty years, leading God’s flock through the wilderness.  He had brought them the Torah.  He had provided for them.  He had fought their battles.  What was so terrible about this momentary absence of good judgment that warranted the decree that he should not enter the Promised Land?

תַנְיָא, רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר מִשּׁוּם חִילְפָא בַּר אַגְרָא שֶׁאָמַר מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן נוּרִי: הַמְקָרֵע בְּגָדָיו בַּחֲמָתוֹ, וְהַמְשַׁבֵּר כֵּלָיו בַּחֲמָתוֹ, וְהַמְפַזֵּר מְעוֹתָיו בַּחֲמָתוֹ, יְהֵא בְּעֵינֶיךָ כְּעוֹבֵד עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. שֶׁכָּךְ אוּמָּנוּתוֹ שֶׁל יֵצֶר הָרָע: הַיּוֹם אוֹמֵר לוֹ עֲשֵׂה כָּךְ, וּלְמָחָר אוֹמֵר לוֹ עֲשֵׂה כָּךְ, עַד שֶׁאוֹמֵר לוֹ עֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה וְהוֹלֵךְ וְעוֹבֵד.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says in the name of Chilfa bar Agra, who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri: One who rips his clothing in anger, or who breaks his vessels in anger, or who scatters his money in anger, should be like an idol (avodah zarah) worshipper in your eyes, as that is the craft of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). Today he tells him do this, and tomorrow he tells him do that, until he tells him to worship idols (avodah zarah) and he goes and worships.

Why is destroying property in a fit of rage akin to idolatry?  Because this individual has become angry about something that has happened to him.  If he would only recognize that everything that happens comes from Hashem, there would be no reason to get upset.  He would realize that every upsetting situation is actually a test from Heaven.

His reaction and response demonstrate that he has failed to acknowledge the challenge.  Rather, he has treated the moment as if God were not in control.  And if God is not in control, then who is?  Something other than God.  That, by definition is avodah zarah, which translates literally as ‘foreign service.’  Avodah zarah – idolatry – is the act of recognizing and responding to forces outside of God’s control.

If you believe that ‘leis asar panui minei’ – there is no place devoid of God in the universe, then there’s never any reason to lose your cool.  Everything that happens comes from God.  The miracle is that He then grants you the freedom to choose – without His interference – how you will respond to the negative stimulus.

There’s a new phenomenon called a Rage Room.  When you get angry, you can let off steam by booking a session at one of these outfits.  They’ll give you a baseball bat and simulate any room in your house.  You can then release all your rage upon crockery, electronics, and musical instruments.

These wanton acts of destruction are, of course, nothing new.  In My (parents’) Generation, rock bands, such as The Who, infamously destroyed their instruments on stage.  That behaviour was second only to the hotel rooms they would later vandalize.  Nowadays, the TVs are too big to throw out the window and the windows don’t actually open. So, thank God, ‘hotel trashing’ is a thing of the past.

It’s not by chance that they were called The Who.  That’s the question you need to ask when you’re tempted to take out your anger on physical property.  Who has motivated you to act like this?  The yetzer hara.  You might believe that it’s better to let your anger out upon these items, rather than on any other human being.  But that’s just the yetzer hara speaking.  Once he has you working in the ‘foreign service,’ it’s simply a matter of degree between that misbehaviour and worshipping idols.

That’s why Moshe Rabbeinu was punished so severely.  He thought, ‘Instead of taking out my anger on these rebellious people, I’ll hit this physical rock a couple of times.  Once I’ve released my rage, I’ll be able to face them and deal with their issues.’  But simply by getting angry, he was joining the foreign service.  At that moment, he was acknowledging circumstances beyond the providence of God.  For Moshe, even momentary avodah zarah was a grave sin.

When you’re feeling angry about something or someone, you need to ask yourself, ‘Who Are You?’  The answer to that question, inevitably, is the yetzer hara.  It’s not really you.  Because you are a prince of Heaven, a child of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.  And you know that Hashem runs the world and that there is no place devoid of Him.  Any suggestion to the contrary, any impetus for anger, is nothing more than the guiles of the inner tempter, the yetzer hara.

If you feel yourself starting to get angry, declare out loud, ‘Thank you God for bringing this challenge into my life.  I pledge to pass this test.  I won’t let you down.  I know that if You didn’t feel that I could step up to the challenge, You would not have deemed me worthy of it.’  May you always remain cool, calm, and collected, and worship the one and only God!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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