God says to Moses: You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.
Moses takes the rod from God, and assembles the congregation in front of the rock; he says to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raises his hand, striking the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
But God said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead the congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:7-13).
Moses, our great leader, will not see the very thing that he spent his life’s work on. Why was he punished? Was it really that bad that Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it? Was it a lack of faith? Was it excessive anger?
The Torah doesn’t say that Moses lost his temper, but the great medieval sage Maimonides says that Moses departed from “the moral mean of patience.” In other words, his anger was over the top. It was unthinkable that a man such as Moses show this kind of anger in the presence of the entire community. You can almost hear Maimonides saying, “What a shanda. What a shame that we should see a leader behave like this.”
But it was still a harsh punishment. This is Moses, after all, our greatest teacher. But what does the rage that Moses shows have to teach us?
This is not the first time that Moses has acted on anger. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave; enraged, he struck down the Egyptian. When he saw Hebrew slaves fighting, he berated them. He has a short fuse, our Moses. And now, after a lifetime of service to the Israelites and to God, he strikes the rock and is forbidden to enter the land of Israel?
But is God exempt? If we as human beings are to act like God, mirroring God’s behavior, how does God act? God is not exactly a paragon of tranquility here.
Elsewhere, God acts in anger too: destroying humanity in the flood, desolating Sodom and Gomorrah, punishing Aaron’s sons, swallowing up Korach. The God of our Torah at times exhibits some very un-god-like behavior.
God’s wrath is such that the first prayer we recite each night, except on Shabbat, recalls God’s anger. God is described as having a flaming nose. In anthropomorphic terms, God’s face is literally on fire with anger.
But the prayer also reminds us that God knows how to restrain God’s anger. God knows how to be compassionate and so should we.
But we are all capable of anger. All of us have been there before: Short on time, short on patience, under pressure, we simply can’t hold back any more. We are all like Moses. We’ve yelled at our kids, we’ve gotten into arguments with those we love. We’ve lashed out and wished we hadn’t. We’ve all struck the rock instead of speaking to it.
But anger can also be a very productive emotion. In the words of the social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, anger can be a prelude to courage. It can stir you and rouse you to solve problems in the world.
In fact, one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a great peace activist, once said, “When you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.”
Yes, anger can be misused to lash out and cause pain, but it can also be, as Hoffer and the Rev. Coffin remind us, a prelude to courage.
Each evening, the ma’ariv prayer begins: God, being merciful, grants atonement for sin and does not destroy. Time and time again, God restrains wrath, refusing to let rage be all-consuming.
It is a powerful daily reminder. We are all human. We all have the capacity to rage. But our tradition informs us that with work, prayers, mindfulness and, yes, with God’s help, we temper that rage, channel it and use that passion for good.