Monday, February 17, 2014

The Golden Calf Story: Controlling our anger. God has a temper too.

Parashat Ki Tissa
Book of Exodus
It has been a little while since I experienced a burst of anger. Like most of you, I understand frustration and annoyance and other emotions which can drive a person to lose one’s temper.  Anger is something different. Anger is visceral and we can feel the blood pressure rise and the adrenaline flow. Anger can propel us to actions that often get us into trouble and from which we usually but not always regret.
I experienced the raw emotion of anger in a conversation I had during a meeting this past week without any relation to Hilton Head or the Temple. I was out of town for the day and someone said something to me which triggered unbridled anger as well as hurt feelings. I stood up and could feel the anger swell inside my body. I made a brief comment that I was hurt by comments and then took myself out of the meeting lest I say something inappropriate and hostile to another person.
I left the meeting, got into my car and drove a few miles where I parked next to a store and just calmed down. I took a deep breath and sat inside the car. After about two minutes my phone rang and one of the people in the meeting called me to be in solidarity with me over the inexcusable comments that the other person uttered in my presence to me. As I was venting a bit I started to laugh. Why? I had just realized that I advertised in the Temple tidings that Shabbat morning’s Torah study session was about the story of the Golden Calf and was entitled “How do we deal with anger?” Then I proclaimed, “The Lord sure does work in mysterious ways.” Maybe there was a message for me in this situation. What could it have been?
I could see long before this week’s occurrence that in the Golden Calf story there is an abundance of wrath and anger going in especially in God and Moses too.  Basically God’s anger is in full force in response to the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf and calling it the God of Israel. In fact God is so angry that God says to Moses words to the effect, ‘I am going to wipe them all out and start over with you as the father of the nation.” Remember the Noah story when God exclaimed that he was starting over again by destroying humanity with a flood? We are talking Biblical size retribution by the Holy One against the so-called treasured people.
Yet Moses taught God an important lesson about anger. Notice that in response to God’s outcry Moses says, ““Why are you so upset to send forth your wrath against your people who you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm?  Why let the Egyptians say, ‘So Adonai meant evil when he took them out of Egypt to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth?’ Moses continued to appeal to God, “Turn from your fierce anger and repent of the evil you intend against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel to whom you swore ‘to give them the land and the covenant!’ Moses didn’t meet God head on with anger or aggression, but, with the moral imperative of a covenantal promise God had made and repeated many times in the Torah. Moses went around the anger rather than challenge it. Moses also reminded God of his own self interest that God would become totally discredited to the Egyptians by destroying the Israelites. Ultimately God’s response was that God pulled back his wrath from destroying the people and God calmed down. It is true that after Moses lost his temper and threw down the original Ten Commandments, God created an earthquake which swallowed up all those who chose to still worship the Golden Calf. It was destructive but not nearly as catastrophic as it could have been had God carried out his original threat.
It’s not easy to assuage someone from their anger in the moment it is ignited. Even the Rabbis teach that one should not try to calm someone down in the midst of their anger or rage. In other words if a temper flares the best advice is to let the person vent and then afterwards try to work with them. Hopefully the person can, after the initial outburst of wrath, be able to listen to reason. Secondly Moses succeeded at pointing out to God the consequences of his actions of breaking his own promise and being diminished in front of Egypt.
I am not saying that God did not have the right to be furious with us nor Moses was not justified in speaking so directly to God. It was just that Moses knew how to speak to the issues God was most concerned about which enabled god to retract his threat of national annihilation.

Being angry is not a sin. Raging at someone particularly in front of another person can be a sin especially if we end up embarrassing the person in front of others who witness the behavior. We may have been wronged but spewing nasty invectives against another in public does not enhance one’s standing. Controlling one’s emotions is not easy but knowing how to remove oneself from the situation before it escalates is a constructive strategy. It is exactly what I did knowing full well that had I remained in the meeting I was likely to say something equally inappropriate and diminish myself.
Dissuading someone from pouring their anger out in normal circumstances is counter to what Judaism teaches about getting a hold of one’s emotions. Judaism, through the Mussar school of thought, is all about how to channel one’s emotions in a constructive and godly way. Yet there are legitimate times when one is allowed to be angry but that does not automatically mean that being angry and sharing it in a situation justifies eviscerating someone else even if they deserve it.
There is a time to share anger with another and hopefully it can be done in private and respectful ways rather than as diatribe or a rant against others. At the same time it is important to learn how to remove oneself from the situation of exploding anger before the damage done by the anger outweighs the damage done by the original actions that precipitated the anger in the first place. Learning how to release anger before it unleashes itself is a religious and spiritual challenge. Taking the high road is hard and painful but at the end of the day it is usually the best way to go.
Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling is the first best step. Pausing before the ready fire and aim syndrome takes over is the next best strategy. Saying how we feel and acknowledging the hurt is not a sign of weakness. Instead it is the most effective way to get the message across to the other person how hurtful their comments were rather than trying to attack them. Releasing the anger is hard but it is in the moral and spiritual sense a good way not to get pulled into the fray.

In my case the individual wrote me an apology and I accepted. I hope we can get back on track to a good relationship which we had before. God learned to release his anger too and ultimately spared the Israelites from this most heinous of sins idolatry. In fact the Talmud is very much aware of God’s ability to experience anger when we read, “Does god pray?” “What is God’s prayer?” God says, I pray that my evil inclination does not over take me.” In other words God is trying to say, ‘I pray that I do not lose my temper over the children of Israel.’

Does attendance at a house of worship services determine who is very religious?

Here is my most recent newspaper column commenting on the recent Gallop poll rating the most and least religious states in the U.S. based upon how often people attend services.
Thanks for taking the time to read it. Comments are always welcome.