Parashat Korach – Humility Matters

By: Michael Carr

By Michael Carr

After 40 years of journeying through the desert, the people of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Zin. After Miriam dies, there is no more water and the people become thirsty. God tells Moses to speak to a rock and command it to give water. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly of people together in front of the rock, and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels! Must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But God said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

Why did this happen? Moses was a leader, and a leader must be a role model. The anger Moses expressed would be common for most people. However, for a person of Moses’ stature it was unacceptable. Aside from the anger itself, Moses’ tone at the rock set a poor example for this younger generation who looked up to him for guidance and for a moral example. That is why Moses was punished so heavily for a failure that might have been more lightly punished in some one less exalted. Maimonides said by losing his temper, Moses failed to respect the people and might have demoralized them. This one moment of anger was sufficient to deprive Moses of the reward of seeing the culmination of his work by leading the people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. In letting his anger control him, Moses gained nothing but an expression of his bad temper; he lost his entire future.

Maimonides also said that we must avoid anger under any circumstance and must go to the opposite extreme. Even when anger is justified, we must avoid it. There may be times when it is necessary to look as if we are angry. But when we outwardly display anger, inwardly, we should be calm.

The Sages were outspoken in their critique of anger. They would have approved of the modern concept of anger management. They did not like anger at all and reserved some of their sharpest language to describe it. “The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life”, said the Sages. Reish Lakish said, “When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him.”

Pirkei Avot asks the question: Who is strong? The answer given is that a strong person is one who can control himself or herself, is slow to anger, and is able to master his or her own spirit.

The Orchot Tzaddikim notes that anger destroys personal relationships. Short-tempered people scare others, so others avoid coming close to them. Anger drives out the positive emotions of forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity. The result is an irascible person who ends up lonely, shunned, and disappointed.

Despite the above references, anger is usually a completely normal, healthy human emotion. However, when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems – problems at work, in one’s personal relationships, and in the overall quality of one’s life.

The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often belligerent feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary for our survival.

However, if we are dealing with ongoing frustrations at work, the loss of someone close to us, financial worries, family issues, or other sources of tension, then instead of getting angry, it is better to address the deeper issue. Anger is dangerous in those circumstances because it causes us to lose control. While in the grip of a hot temper, we lose the ability to step back and evaluate the possible consequences of our action. The result is that in a moment of ire, we can do or say things we may regret for the rest of our lives.

Often, anger builds because we do not immediately address the problem. What might have begun as a very minor issue becomes a major one in our minds, ultimately causing us to explode in rage and act inappropriately. The best approach in the case of these minor issues that anger us is to try and address the situation as quickly and as constructively as possible, and then to let the anger go.

Another way to deal with anger might be the mental approach of cognitive restructuring. Simply put, this means changing the way we think about an event so as to change our feelings about it. When we are angry, our feelings can displace our rationality, which leads us to magnify our hurts and their causes, until our memory of the event becomes less factual and, occasionally, dramatically exaggerated. But, if we choose to do so, we can analyze the circumstances causing our anger logically, which can help us replace our instinctive, emotional reactions with more rational ones. We can do a reality check with others to see if our memories match the facts of the event; then we can evaluate whether our reactions were proportional to those facts. Logical analysis eventually will overcome our anger, because anger, even when it’s justified, quickly becomes irrational and difficult to uphold.

Once logic has had its say, how can we further manage our anger and avoid projecting our emotions onto others?

First, we can start by acknowledging our behavior and the need for a positive change. We need to be true to ourselves and to release any issues from the past so we can try to move forward anew with a fresh and positive outlook. Holding on to past anger and resentment prevents personal change and positive interactions from occurring in the future.

Next, we need to get tuned in to ourselves, so we are aware of our reactions and communication when speaking. If we are upset or feeling the escalation of emotions which precedes an aggressively angry reaction, we can give ourselves permission to step away from the situation to collect our thoughts so we can continue the conversation in a productive manner. Once our emotions are more under our control we can choose how best to proceed.

If those techniques don’t help, we can try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or counting to 10 before speaking. Most important: when speaking with someone about a conflict or difficult issue, we need to do our best to express our feelings without being confrontational. We need to be aware of the triggers that might incite others’ anger as well as our own. We should do our best to minimize outside forms of stress, since stress often aggravates a person’s feelings of aggression and anger.

Angry people tend to jump to conclusions and to take actions based on those conclusions even though the assumptions they have made can be inaccurate. The first thing we need to do if we are in a heated discussion is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and try to understand the other person’s perspective before answering. We need to slow ourselves down and think through our responses rather than saying the first thing that comes into our heads.

Above all, in learning to manage our own anger, we need to find reasons to feel good about ourselves and ways to value ourselves. We need to be compassionate with ourselves and to learn from our past difficulties rather than dwelling on them and allowing them to consume us and affect our self-esteem. After that, we will be able to use that same compassion in dealing with those who cause us anger.

Remember: We cannot eliminate our anger and it probably would not be a good idea to do so even if we could. In spite of all our efforts, things will happen in life that will provoke our anger. In some cases that anger will be entirely justifiable. Life inevitably includes frustration, pain, loss, and the unpredictable actions of others. We can’t change that; but we can change the way we let such events affect us. Managing our angry responses in a productive fashion can prevent our anger from making us even more unhappy in the long run. The antidote to anger is patience.

Moses’ angry response to the Israelites’ complaints, and the consequences of that reaction in this week’s parsha, teaches us the importance of stepping away and putting some space between us and any pressurized situation we may be dealing with.

Living a moral Jewish life requires that we grapple with our anger but never let it win. The directive of Judaism in this case is simple: Either we defeat anger or anger will defeat us. Just ask Moses.