“The best fighter is never angry.” ― Lao Tzu
Being unhappy is a vicious cycle. It can lead to worry, anxiety, anger, depression. And each of these can trigger any of the others. Anger is toxic to your body and soul, often triggering one’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which floods the body with stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline and cortisol.) This could manifest in all sorts of health, nervous system, and digestive problems. The cure for all this is easier said than done, but it begins with a healthy perspective, with trust and faith that all is for the good and that everything will work out.
I went through periods of depression when everything in my life was seemingly good. I wasn’t poor or friendless or in dire straits, but, in the way I viewed my life, I might as well have been. The Talmud teaches that a person is led down the path that he chooses to follow.1 If we believe everything is for the good, then reality becomes good for us, but if a person only sees “bad”, then they are treated accordingly with this lack of emunah (faith), and “bad” manifests more and more.
I broke this cycle for myself when I realized that if everything around me is good, but I can still get myself into such a dark place, then the opposite must be true– I can get myself to the light, no matter what circumstances I find myself in. It was then that I tried to become light, just as when light from your own flame is shared with another flame, your flame doesn’t become smaller, only the other person’s flame is now ignited. Since then, I have tried to live by what John Mayer so beautifully asks for in his singing on Gravity, “just keep me where the light is.”2 Doing so is rooted in giving– giving yourself what you may need– loving yourself, believing in yourself– and giving to others, which creates love and community, something every person needs in order to feel alive. The Hebrew word for love, אהבה/ahava (ah-ha-va), has the root word of hav which means ‘to give’. Love is synonymous with giving. Real love is something you give and create. And when this true love comes to be, it is pure joy, where anger has no place.
How Doubt Leads to Anger
In the Talmud it says that anger can cause a sage to lose his wisdom or a person who is destined for greatness to forfeit it.3 The part of this Parashah, Chukat, that jumped out at me was when Moshe got frustrated and angry with Bnei Yisrael and ended up hitting the rock, instead of speaking to it:
וַיַּקְהִ֜לוּ מֹשֶׁ֧ה וְאַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַקָּהָ֖ל אֶל־פְּנֵ֣י הַסָּ֑לַע וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ם שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים הֲמִן־הַסֶּ֣לַע הַזֶּ֔ה נוֹצִ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם מָֽיִם
Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you Rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”4
Rashi indicates that Moshe sinned by saying, “Listen, Rebels” and faults him for striking instead of speaking to the rock, as Hashem instructed. The sin was that Moshe demonstrated uncertainty about whether Hashem would miraculously extract water from the rock. When someone’s emunah and bitachon (trust) are in a perfect state, inner peace and contentment are present, and anger cannot arise. But when safek (doubt) creeps in, anger lies waiting. Because, in this instance, Moshe’s faith was not absolutely perfect, he reacted angrily to the people and their provocations. As a result, his judgment was flawed, and he hit the rock instead of speaking to it.
In Likutei Halachot, Reb Natan writes that Moshe struck the rock because the Jews were making demands of Moshe. Reb Natan explains that demanding is like stealing — both are attempts to take something that belongs to someone else by force, either physical or emotional force. Moshe learned his lesson and never repeated his mistake. With the Golden Calf and with the Spies, he pleaded and prayed for God to forgive the Israelites, using the power of speech for good and not as a demand.
Ultimately, all difficulties in human understanding and faithlessness stem from the sin of Adam with the Eitz HaDa’at (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). The “Good” of the tree represents what is permitted and the “Evil” represents what is forbidden. Moshe’s task was to speak to the rock to draw forth its waters (Torah is synonymous with water) and, had he done so, he would have rectified Adam’s sin.5 The Zohar explains that the rock represents the Oral Torah and that, had Moshe not struck it, we would not struggle with understanding the Oral Torah, and both water and Torah would flow freely.6
Anger Like Idol Worship
Speaking instead of striking is putting request and faith above force. Because these sins were not rectified, our task now is to toil in perpetual perplexity, trying to create our own space of pure permission, understanding, and peace. This is only achieved by finding the good, by learning, and by strengthening our emunah, drawing ourselves closer to the truth. As it says in Pirkie Avot, “One who studies the Torah lishmah [for its own sake] is like a fountain that increases its flow, and like a river that never stops.”7
Each person has the choice to serve Hashem or to rebel against him, as it is written, “You shall choose life.”8 More life is given and felt when a person serves the Creator of life itself. If we are ever-mindful of the Knowledge, the Knower, and the Known (as Rambam refers to Hashem), one can trust that all is for the ultimate good and live peacefully and without worry. Anger and hatred, on the other hand, manifest from lack of faith and trust and are rooted in the “evil inclination”, the side of each of us that opposes truth and life itself. The Zohar says that “Someone who gets angry is like one who worships idols.”9 Here Chazal (our Sages) stress that anger stems from lack of faith in the oneness and goodness of all, so it’s as if an angry person is siding with idol worship or the evil inclination.
As we learn in Tanya, when we are angered by an action or event, we are temporarily denying Hashgacha Pratit (Divine providence), which is really what enabled that action to happen.10
The Redemptive Power of Speech
When it comes to Moshe’s punishment of not being able to enter the Land of Israel for hitting the rock, many Rishonim (early Torah commentators) find it perplexing. Ramban questions Rashi, asking, Why did Hashem command Moshe to bring a rod if he was only told to speak to the rock? And why is hitting the rock to draw water forth any less miraculous than speaking to it? Chazal point out that there are many instances where Moshe was commanded to bring a rod but not to use it in performing a miracle. Even during the ten plagues, Moshe did not use the rod, he only held it. The reality is that there are rocks that produce water from a fissure when struck. When Moshe looked to see which rock to hit, Bnei Yisrael might have inferred that he could naturally draw water forth from it, taking away the miracle of speech that Hashem wanted to enact.
The only way to reach the upper levels of holiness is through speech, through tefillah (prayer), the true speech of calling out to God. The blessings you receive correlate to the words that you speak, as we learned a few weeks ago with the power of counting and saying the blessings of Sefirat HaOmer out loud. As Joseph B. Soloveitchik teaches in The Lonely Man of Faith, “‘I will speak that I may find relief’; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.” And so the power of speech for a true tzaddik is that much greater.
Responsa from the Lubavitcher Rebbe are always inspiring and seem to be applicable way beyond the person in question. This particular passage jumps out as an example of advice that should be implemented as universal practice:
Keep the mitzvah found in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law], that if you hurt someone’s feelings—even out of anger—you must apologize in person and ask for complete forgiveness.
It is by nature difficult for a person to apologize. Nevertheless, you should overcome that difficulty and do it.
In that way, every time you are about to get angry, you will remember that afterwards you will have to brace yourself and ask for forgiveness… That itself will help you weaken your tendency towards anger. 11
If a rock, which neither hears nor speaks, fulfills the wish of Hashem, how much more so should we. We learn from Hashem that words create worlds. In the beginning, Hashem spoke existence into being. Tefillah, prayer, is our daily method of emulating God, speaking spirituality into reality. When Moshe used his words instead to say, “Listen, you Rebels,” he took the power of words that could elevate and unite and instead created safek and division. It is a lesson in how important it is to be both slow to anger and slow to speak harsh words, and that is why the punishment was so severe. As Rabbi Eliezer says: “. . . Do not be an easy person to anger.”12
The Alter Rebbe teaches that when hatred rises in a person’s mind towards another, or jealousy or anger or a grudge, one should immediately remove this thought from the mind and should not entertain it. On the contrary, the person should prevail over their emotions, treating this person with kindness and showing an abundance of love. Not only should one not take revenge, but, on the contrary, the person should repay the offender with good, as we learn from the Zohar.13
A Soul Like Earth
Last week, we read that when the dissent of Korach against Moshe broke out, Moshe, knowing the truth and fully capable of setting them straight, chose not to go on the defensive or offensive. It’s written, “Moshe heard and fell [to the ground] on his face.”14 Lesson 277 in Likutey Moharan has an incredible teaching about the earth and dirt and what we can learn from them. Rebbe Nachman explains how the earth represents bitul (nullification) and how it gives life and therefore also represents love. He teaches that when a person encounters opposition, they shouldn’t take a stand against their “enemy” saying, “what they do to me, I will repay in kind.” Because it is this disposition that exacerbates the situation and causes the enemy to achieve their goal, where they see the person respond and act exactly in the manner they were hoping to provoke. Rabbeinu teaches that a person should respond in the opposite manner, to judge their “enemy” favorably, turning a bad situation into a good one.
It’s written in Talmud Brachot, “Let my soul be like earth to everyone.”15 Everyone treads on the earth and destroys it to an extent; yet the earth remains in its humble state and continues to provide nourishment, food, drink, gold, silver and precious stones. Rabbeinu teaches that in the case of the enemy that may oppose us or treat us poorly, we need to do for them every good— just like the earth. As King Solomon teaches, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread, if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”16 It should be noted that this is speaking in the case of strife and conflict and not, God forbid, if someone is in grave danger, in which case they need to take a stand, alert the authorities or find a safe space away from their antagonist.
In the space of the conflict that many of us face from opposition throughout life, this is a lesson of how we can flip the “bad” into good. And in such a case, Rabbeinu shares a beautiful analogy where the antagonist is the person’s neighbor and is digging a tunnel under his house to get to you. When they’re halfway to you, you’d likely default to wanting to treat them in kind and get to them before they get to you. But if you do that, you’ve just done half of their job for them. If, however, you look at the earth as bitul and nurturing love– that which opposes hate– and go inside, pouring the earth on your side of the house, then you overturn the other person’s plan, making it that much harder for that antagonist to use anger towards resolution.
Rabbeinu teaches that taking a stand against the enemy, working against them, is akin to digging just like the enemy, making it that much easier for them to reach their goals. Instead, by tapping into the aspect of earth and of, “Let my soul be like earth…,” we overturn the enemy’s plans, and as it’s written in Proverbs, “He who digs a pit will fall into it.”17 The antagonist falls and remains in their own pit that they dug for themselves, because of the earth (love) poured on top of the hate.18 Bringing it back to Korach, and his rebellion, as is stated in the Talmud, his controversy was not Lishmah, for the sake of Heaven, and he was not mevatel (nullified) at all. So, he and his faction were swallowed up by the earth. We have to remember in the end it will all be good, as King Solomon writes in Kohelet, “God sides with the persecuted.”19
R’ Eliyahu Mizrachi connects this week’s Parashah to another Torah passage,20 when Bnei Israel nagged Moshe for meat, and he responded in that instance, “Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?” Rashi questions which of these is more severe, the instance with the meat or this moment at the rock when Moshe says, “Listen you, rebels! Shall we fetch you water out of this rock?” Rashi concludes that the second is more severe, because Moshe and Aharon were barred from entering the Land of Israel because of it. He explains that the punishment wasn’t for striking the rock per se, but that Moshe initially spoke to the wrong rock, and it did not pour forth water, so he and Aharon thought that it might have to be struck for water to come out. Moshe then hit a different rock, which happened to be the rock that would have poured forth enough water for all Bnei Yisrael and their flock, if only he had spoken to it.
There Is No Such Thing As Despair
The Maharal explains that whomever truly trusts in Hashem will be blessed with a happy disposition. And that is why it says, “You did not believe in Me to sanctify Me.”21 The main problem with hitting the rock, which was born from a moment of imperfect faith by Moshe, was that it was an act of force. Moshe’s sin was in the moment of questioning, and the anger seeped in in that one tiny moment. The Maharal teaches: where there is complete faith, there is no room for anger, for there is great joy.
What Korach didn’t understand when he rebelled against Moshe in last week’s parashah was that each person has their own spiritual level. In fact, a true tzaddik has a greater yetzer hara than everyone else, and the consequences of their choices are, therefore, much greater. In this instance, we see that Moshe, who lived his entire life righteously, lost the Promised Land with just one moment of anger. The pressure of keeping up Moshe’s level of piety in every moment is beyond our capacity to comprehend, but what we can learn is that even just one moment of faithlessness for someone on the level of Moshe could block him from his Promised Land. How much more important it is for each of us to try and stay in a space of faith, trust, and joy, so that we don’t bring negativity into our own lives.
Rebbe Nachman’s famous teaching, “Ein shum yeush ba’olam klal!”, which means, “There is no such thing as despair in the world at all!’ It’s a hard thing to put faith into, especially when you feel like everything is horrible and hopeless. But you have to hold onto your faith, and when you see the good that comes from this struggle, then you’ll know why you had to experience it. Life must be lived, lessons must be learned, and, in the end, good often comes from “bad”. The Zohar teaches: “By (the way one handles one’s) anger, one can recognize who one is. If a person guards one’s soul at a moment of anger and does not allow it (one’s soul) to be torn from its place…this is a person who is as they should be…This is a complete person.”22 ‘Shalom’ means peace, ‘shalem’ means complete, so we are only complete when we are at peace. And peace only comes from mindful joy which never has the space for anger.
As we try to reveal the spiritual Light that is so often concealed in this world, in anticipation for the final redemption, I pray we all find as much peace as we can by being slow to anger and quick when it comes to showing love by giving of oneself.
This Dvar is dedicated to the aliyat neshamah of Cheryl Bat Marvin // Please say a Psalm/Tehillim, and let us all pray for the revelation of the final redemption, when darkness will fully be transformed to light, and when peace will be fully realized.✨
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Notes & Sources
- Talmud Makkot 10b
- “Gravity,” a song by John Mayer
- Talmud Pesachim 66b
- Numbers 20:10
- Likutei Halachot VIII, p.222a-b
- Tikkuney Zohar #21, p.43a
- Pirkie Avot 6:1
- Deuteronomy, 30:19
- Zohar on Genesis 2:16 and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
- Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, epistle 25
- Igrot Kodesh, letter 6670
- Pirkei Avot 2:10
- Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, ch. 12
- Rashi; Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 16:4
- Talmud Berachot 17a
- Proverbs 25:21
- Ibid 26:27
- Likutey Moharan # 277, by Rebbe Nachman, p.355
- Ecclesiastes 3:15
- Numbers 11:22
- Ibid 20:12
- Zohar II, 182a-b