The late Leo Steinbach, a Jewish immigrant to the United States, was noted by the U. S. News and World Report as one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century! Dr. Steinbach was a pharmacologist who discovered in 1963 the anti-anxiety drug, Valium. This medication calms our nerves, reduces agitation and suppresses anger. When utilized appropriately, it can be a life saver.
It is fitting to remember Steinbach’s discovery on this Shabbat which is so much about uncontrollable emotions. Our parasha is about aggression, loss of control and anger. Israel acts out. Moses acts out. (God acts out too, but that is for another time.) Everyone loses control. Would the religious history of the Jews have been different if Moses had taken Valium?
We know the situation so well. Moses comes down the mountain after this incredible direct experience with God. He has been away for 40 days, and the Jewish people are restless and afraid. He sees the Golden Calf. Out of anger, he smashes the tablets of the Ten Utterances. What would have happened if Moses popped a Valium? Moses’ level of anger would have decreased or even disappeared. He would have responded deliberately instead of emotionally.
Here is a Valium version of our story. Moses has this internal conversation. Knowing what is happening in the camp, he says to himself. “They are at it again. Do not let yourself get crazy! I know them. They are still children. They mean well but they have no impulse control, and they are scared. I always knew that my brother was articulate and loyal but also weak. Moses, you know that you have quite a temper. Take a Valium, calm yourself, and head down the mountain.”
What would have transpired? Most probably, he would have taken Aaron and some of the elders to his tent and asked them: “what were you thinking?” Moses could have gathered the people and asked them: “don’t you remember what you pledged to God? What you are doing is not worthy of you. I know that you can do better. What has happened is horrendous, but I know that you still love God! Stop the partying. Take the calf. Melt it down. We will find some positive use for the gold to serve God.”
I might be accused of making Moses into a 21st century medicated religious figure. So be it. Nevertheless, how would this story have unfolded differently with Moses taking a Valium instead expressing unchecked rage?
The answer to that question is seen in the passivity of Aaron. Aaron is too mellow. He does not seem capable of anger. When all hell breaks out, his response is placation. “Israel, I am not going to make you angry. You are acting out and that is fine. That is all that I can expect from you. Just give me your gold and you can party all night.” Aaron is known as a pursuer of peace but in this context seeking peace is not appropriate. He fails to take decisive action. He refuses to be angry, and the covenant is almost destroyed.
What does the juxtaposition of Moses’s anger and Aaron’s passivity teach? Sometimes anger is necessary. Anger can be holy. Certain things cannot be tolerated, even for a moment, when fundamental principles of belief and justice are at stake.
Anger in Judaism must be understood within a framework of polarity. Anger is dangerous: Kohelet teaches: “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools!” (Ecclesiastes 7:9) In the Talmud, Reish Lakish teaches, “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.” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 66b)
A person who is enslaved to random expressions of anger is dangerous. We are living in angry times. Political opponents are vicious to each other. Discussion on social media is nasty. Road rage and gun violence defines our times. None of these are a good signpost for our society. And yet….
Judaism also recognizes that anger is at times appropriate and necessary. In fact, if anger is not expressed at a critical time of instability or wickedness, a society is imperiled. Anger is a manifestation of a healthy immune response that is essential to maintain the social order.
Ibn Gabriel in his ethical treatise, Improvement of Moral Characters 4:1., wrote: “Wrath is a reprehensible quality, but when employed to correct or to reprove, or because of indignation at the performance of transgressions, it becomes laudable”.
Sometimes anger gives us the courage to speak up when it is natural to be afraid. There is holy anger…. prophetic anger……an anger expressed for a higher purpose. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Moses had to act decisively and with sufficient force to restore order to a people wildly out of control.” (Covenant & Conversation, Hukkat, 5775)
We cannot negotiate with idolaters. Making peace with extremists will only embolden them. Standing up to bullies is essential. Evil people need to be identified as such and we must respond with appropriate anger and effective action. Without it, we end up in a world out-of-control.
I think that we Jews need some well-expressed anger as we confront our reality. Today, human dignity is devalued. Shouldn’t that make us angry? Our democratic institutions are threatened by illiberalism. Should n’t that enrage us? A democratic Israel is endangered. Should we be indifferent? Social media has created a society of loneliness and detachment. Do we just change the channel on our streaming service and say who cares? Around the world, up to 811 million people regularly go to bed hungry. Should we have a nice discussion of that fact as we sip chardonnay , eat our artisan cheese and move on? Thank goodness Moses did not fill a prescription for Valium. Moses threw the tablets, crushed the golden calf, eliminated the idolaters and the Hebrews were able to continue their journey. He restored equilibrium to a society that had lost its way. Thank you, Moses, for your ennobling anger. We need more of it.