The Many Expressions of Anger

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

According to Benjamin Franklin, “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom for a good one.” This statement, while true about man, cannot possibly be applied to God. And yet, throughout the Torah, we see instances of God expressing anger at Bnai Yisrael. That there is a basis and purpose to God’s anger is irrefutable. That same emotion, however, when expressed by man, is treated quite harshly by Chazal.  Is man’s tendency toward rage an absolute evil, or can there be a value to our angry inclinations?

We see the expression of God’s anger at the end of a fascinating discussion between God and Moshe regarding Moshe’s future role as leader of Bnai Yisrael. On the surface, it almost seems as though Moshe was trying to wiggle himself out of the commitment. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:63), however, explains (to paraphrase) that Moshe was trying to ascertain from God how he was to go about proving God’s existence to the Jewish nation. At the end of the discussion (Shemos 4:10-11), Moshe relates that his speech impediment would be a major defect in his ability to act as leader. God famously responds that He created the ability to speak; therefore He would assist Moshe in accomplishing the task. Moshe’s final response to God is to attempt to reject the mission (ibid 13):

“[Moshe] said, "I beg You my Master, please send the one You usually send.”

God’s famous response is to transfer the role of speaker from Moshe to Aharon (ibid 14-17):

God displayed anger toward Moshe and said, "Is not Aharon, the Levite, your brother? I know that he knows how to speak….”

It is the manifestation of God’s anger that is the focus of Rashi (ibid 14, based on the Talmud Zevachim 102a):

This is dependent on Tannaim: And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses. R. Yehoshua

b. Karchah said: A [lasting] effect (roshem) is recorded of every fierce anger in the Torah, but no [lasting] effect is recorded in this instance. R. Shimon b. Yochai said: A [lasting] effect is recorded in this

instance too, for it is said, Is there not Aaron thy brother the Levite? Now surely he was a priest?

Rather, this is what He meant: I had said that thou wouldst be a priest and he a Levite; now,

however, he will be a priest and thou a Levite.

In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi expands on the concept of this roshem. He explains that at times the lasting effect is expressed through hitting someone, other times through admonishment, and other times through cursing (kelala). He also cites numerous incidents involving these particular effects. For example, he makes reference to Yaakov’s anger at Rochel (Bereishis 30:1-2). When Rochel saw Leah’s success in bearing children, she became jealous and approached Yaakov, in a sense demanding children. Yaakov replies in anger (“vayichar af”), and addresses Rochel, saying, “Am I in God’s place?…. The roshem here, according to Rashi, is the language of admonishment, nezifa.

The concept of a lasting mark resulting from anger, based on the examples cited by Rashi, seems to function within the domain of mankind’s emotional state. Yet somehow, the Talmud is questioning whether this same characteristic applies to God! Furthermore, what is the nature of this argument between the two tanaaim? Regarding the first opinion, why is God’s anger at Moshe different from other instances of fierce anger? Regarding the second, there is no outright mention in the Torah of a transfer of Moshe’s  kehuna rights to Aharon. Obviously its source is found in the Torah She’beal Peh; yet where does this allusion exist in the Torah? When Rashi refers to incidents exemplifying the concept of roshem he uses concrete examples, not insinuations.

It is the subject of anger that underlies these issues and ultimately needs to be understood. The Rambam writes about the danger of anger in Hilchos Deos (2:3), explaining in vivid detail the damage done when a person allows anger to overcome him. He advises a person to avoid this middah at all costs, offering numerous sayings by Chazal as to the perils of becoming angry. What is the source of anger? Why do we get angry? We live in a world where we are subject to the laws of nature and God’s will. When a person is in harmony with this world, he is operating in line with his tzelem Elokim. It is when the objective actuality surrounding him does not conform to his own subjective version of reality that anger emerges. Essentially, it occurs when the world doesn’t work according to our wishes. We can all think of countless examples when anger overcame us, all emerging from this core concept. In a sense, it is almost a part of our nature – and yet, it is a tremendous danger. As the Rambam describes, it essentially removes the person from his ability to think, as his mind now functions under the cloud of this overpowering emotion. In these instances, the emotion of anger takes center stage, and the results are harmful. 

The Rambam’s concern about anger seems to be in the situation where the anger itself guides the individual’s decision making. The anger being described by the Talmud, and elaborated by Rashi, is a different idea. In these instances, a message or idea needs to be transmitted to the individual, and presenting the message, using anger as a vehicle, accomplishes this successfully. The example by Yaakov helps clarify this concept. Yaakov recognized a flaw in Rochel on the basis of her request. He had to rebuke her in a way that would help jar her out of her state of mind and allow her to perceive her flaw. Therefore, he makes use of anger, where the anger functions to help illuminate the flaw in the individual. This might be the concept of a roshem– where the anger is not the essence, rather it serves as a vehicle to delivering the message. 

With this in mind, we can now try and tackle the argument above. The first question that must be dealt with is the nature of anger in God’s realm, since it is obvious that God does not “get angry.” The expression of anger by God occurs when mankind does not operate in line with God’s will, the ultimate reality. This is most often occurs when Bnai Yisrael engages in idolatry (see Moreh Nevuchim, 1:36) – yet it is not limited to these instances.  The characteristic of anger expressed by God brings to light this lack of harmony – the flip side, so to speak, of man’s anger. Therefore, when mankind is on the receiving end of God’s anger, it is being revealed to him that he is not acting in line with objective truth. The mere expression of anger by God serves to bring to light man’s flaws, an abstract realization. The anger, though, can extend beyond the abstract, manifest in punishment, onesh. It may be that the concepts alone are not enough to correct the wrong, thereby necessitating the onesh. This then could be the basis for the argument. According to R’ Yehoshua, the middah of anger need not always be expressed with an onesh as well. God’s anger itself is enough. According to R’ Shimon, it is part of the middah of God’s anger that mankind experience an onesh. 

There is no doubt there was some type of flaw expressed in Moshe’s final insistence in not accepting the mission (the nature of Moshe’s “flaw” is not the subject of this article). According to R’ Yehoshua, in this instance there was no punishment emerging through God’s anger. This means God’s anger, which was expressed in the decision to allow Aharon to be the spokesman, served to expose to Moshe the emotional resistance in his position, which was the source of his flaw. According to the second opinion, though, part of the very middah of God’s anger is a roshem. How did this emerge with Moshe? The arrangement introduced by God would be Moshe transmitting the concepts and commands from God to Aharon, and Aharon being the “spokesman”, the communicative link to Bnai Yisrael. They both were charged with bringing the ideas of God to Bnai Yisrael, but Aharon would be the face of the transmission. This formula was indicative of the future roles of the kohanim and leviim. The entire tribe of Levi was entrusted not just to run the Bais Hamikdash, but to serve as the link between Bnai Yisrael and God. The kohanim, however, were the ones who communicated directly with the nation, whether through korbanos or teaching of Torah. Therefore, we see in the arrangement between Moshe and Aharon the foundation for this future relationship between the kohanim and leviim.

Whether or not onesh is a requirement of God’s roshem remains debatable, but what is clear is that God’s expression of anger is always a tool of clarification for Bnai Yisrael, a means for us to recognize our flaws and being the path to teshuvah. Within man’s realm, anger primarily serves the opposite function, leading to the dangers so vividly expressed by Chazal and the Rambam. True enough, there are times when anger can serve a positive role –yet it can only happen when its role is secondary to a true concept. Benjamin Franklin got it right in man’s realm; but without understanding how God makes use of anger, it is more of an idiom than chachma.