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Smash Anger

Soon after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai which of course contains many commandments forbidding idolatry, the Israelites build a Golden Calf and bow down to it. They were understandably nervous and worried. In their estimation, Moses had abandoned them. He was spending more time communing with God than with them.

The people complain to Aaron, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32) Aaron quickly, and surprisingly, acquiesces to their demand and builds for them an idol in the familiar image of a calf.

After forty days of wild partying (ok the Torah does not put it in those words), Moses finally descends from the mountain. Despite the fact that God warns Moses about what he is going to see, when he does actually see the people dancing before the idol, he becomes enraged. Moses smashes the tablets and then burns the Golden Calf. He then grinds the idol into powder, dumps it into the water, and forces the Israelites drink it.

And while I don’t particularly like Moses’ version of washing the Israelites mouths out with soap, I do understand his passion, indignation and anger. The idol should be smashed to bits. Not the tablets, however.

And herein lies the lesson about anger. Even when the object of anger, or the person with whom one is angry, is deserving of rage, other things, and other people, get hurt in the process. How many times, after a justifiably frustrating day at work, or after reading a report about the day’s news that makes one’s blood boil, does a person snap and get angry with those closest to them? Children, for example, can be frustrating when they neglect to clean up their rooms, but does such an oversight, even a repeated one, really deserve a shout or curse?

Too often anger makes us smash the good stuff along with the deserving things. Like Moses, we frequently smash our sacred tablets when we should instead be grinding our Twitter and Facebook feeds into powder.

Because of his anger, Moses is forced to go back to the mountain top and get a new set of tablets. He can replace the broken tablets, but can repair the brokenness?

The rabbis teach that when the tabernacle was completed, they contain not only the whole tablets, inscribed by God, but also the broken tablets smashed by Moses. Perhaps their message is that even though the destroyed tablets can be replaced, the brokenness can never really be repaired.

Be careful when lashing out in anger. Even though your rage might be justified, good stuff inevitably gets broken in the process. Anger is never so focused as to only touch its rightful target. Something important, and even sacred, always gets broken in the process.

The Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav therefore teaches: “One must sweeten anger with compassion.”