Select Page

Anger Has Its Place, But When?

Judaism, unique in every way from the common notion of religion, depends on a relationship that is crucial for its continued existence. I am referring to the rebbe-talmid, teacher-student relationship. Its importance spans many areas of our Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, not to mention the obvious laws of respect due to each other as well as laws pertaining to the very process of learning. Our entire “mesorah,” the system of passing on our Torah values from one generation to the next, depends on the success of this relationship.

In the previous week’s פרשיות, we find Moshe and Aaron engaged in discussion and dialogue with Pharaoh. These meetings centered on getting Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery so that they could then go and serve God in the wilderness. Each encounter between Moshe and Pharaoh ended with a warning by Moshe that should Pharaoh resist, God would bring a new plague to be visited upon the Egyptians.

The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, observes that it is truly remarkable to note how many times Moshe and Aaron were given an audience with Pharaoh despite the fact that they repeatedly reproached him. Although Pharaoh had the power to punish and execute anyone at will, yet Moshe and Aaron suffered no personal consequences. The Rav remarks that Pharaoh’s tolerance is perhaps one of the great miracles of the Exodus.

However, in this week’s Parsha, Bo, we see a change in Moshe’s demeanor. At the conclusion of each previous attempt by Moshe to prevail upon Pharaoh, Moshe did not get angry when he and Aaron were thrown out of the meeting. But after warning Pharaoh about the final plague, the Torah specifically states, “And he left Pharaoh’s presence in a burning anger” (Shemot 11:8). Why? What caused Moshe to suddenly display this character trait?

We must understand. The mission of Moshe not only included the liberation of בני ישראל, but also to teach all the people, Jews and Egyptians alike, the truth of the existence of God and His relationship to mankind. Many times, in both last week’s and this week’s Torah reading we come across the verse, “… in order that you know there is none like Me in the all the earth.” (Shemot 9:14) Moshe was not only their liberator but even more importantly, he was their rebbe, teacher. The Egyptians would then, hopefully, go together with בני ישראל and serve God in the wilderness. The Torah attests to the great status achieved by Moses in Egypt as it says, “… and the man Moses was highly esteemed in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people.” (Shemot 11:3)

Over the course of the previous nine plagues, בני ישראל, as well as many Egyptians, came to recognize God. When the magicians could not duplicate the plague of lice, they said: “This is the finger of God” (Shemot 8:15). At another point before the plague of hail, those that feared God brought their cattle into their barns (Shemot 9:20-21). By the time we read about the plague of locusts (Shemot 10:7), we find the servants of Pharaoh pleading with him to let בני ישראל leave. Moshe was successful as their teacher. The Torah records that a mixed multitude of people left Egypt with בני ישראל.

So why did Moshe get angry at Pharaoh? Anger is generally considered a bad or negative character trait. There is really no reason ever to be angry. When we do exhibit this trait it comes from our internal disappointment and frustration with reality. Rather than accepting reality, we want reality to bend to us. Our anger expresses this flaw of our psyche. Whether I stub my toe and get angry at the rock or I lash out at another person, the same internal defect is at play. Why doesn’t the external world conform to my desires?

A teacher should never get angry at his student. Either the teacher did not explain the idea well or the student is having some difficulty comprehending the idea. The student must keep asking and the teacher must keep trying to explain. The teacher may need to be resourceful and creative but s/he cannot stop the process out of frustration.

However, there is found in the laws of Talmud Torah a situation that permits a teacher to display anger or dissatisfaction with the student. As the Talmud discusses, this anger by the teacher isn’t true anger at the person of the student. Rather, the teacher’s anger becomes another tool in the teacher’s bag of instruction. It is a tool not to be used except on very rare occasions, like the inscription on the glass protecting the fire alarm. Break in case of emergency!

To reiterate the anger displayed by the teacher is not personal. It is shown only to induce in the student a sense of the potential loss of love that may occur should a break in the relationship with his teacher actually occur. If the teacher displays anger, perhaps that will motivate the student to reconsider and accept the idea. After all, the teacher only has the best interests of his student in mind, the student’s perfection. Picture if you will, a physician who is trying to get his patient to refrain from some harmful food or activity. If after all the lecturing and explanations not working to change the patient’s behavior, you could well imagine the doctor’s tone and demeanor might change. Why? Out of concern for his patient’s health.

For Pharaoh, the time of emergency had been reached. To the very end, Moshe was trying to get Pharaoh to see and accept the true idea of God and give up his foolish way of life and system of idol worship. When all rational approaches failed, Moshe had only one tool left to help Pharaoh. As Pharaoh’s rebbe, Moshe’s display of anger was calculated. Moshe never gave up on Pharaoh’s ability to accept the truth and change. When anger is used in this way, and only this way, to help a person come to the truth, isn’t that better than just walking out?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan