The Torah says that Pinchas assuaged God’s ‘anger’. When meeting a Moslem Sheikh this week, he mentioned that pretty much the worst thing you can do in Islam is to ascribe physical attributes to God – something that the Torah does regularly! I do understand both sides. On the one hand, of course, a formless spiritual being does not have arms and legs and does not get angry. On the other hand, however, since the human mind cannot comprehend the infinite, we need to find ways to at least describe how God is manifest in our world and personifications are useful in this regard. So, I have respect for both Jewish and Moslem attitudes on this one.
However, even if we are going to talk about God’s legs and arms and his love, it’s still hard to figure out how God could get ‘angry’. Surely that is a very negative attribute with which one would not want to personify God?
Here’s how I understand anger. It is a frustrated and passionate response to the world not being the way that you want it to be. Almost invariably this is very personal. MY world is not going the way that I expect MY world to go – and heaven help the person who is perceived as getting in MY way!
Anger only comes because of expectation and entitlement. Take way entitlement and you take away anger.
However, there is a different and less personal anger. And that is an impersonal anger. Anger on behalf of someone else, or a group or even the world itself. And the difference is in the feeling behind it. Taking climate change as an example without taking a position on the authenticity of the issue itself. A person can be angry at climate change because he believes that it is destroying HIS world. And so, corporations and governments will be very much in his crosshairs. Or, a person could be angry at climate change, because he believes it is destroying EVERYONE’S world, or even GOD’S world. And he will passionately, but peacefully, work towards doing something about it. When you care about something, you are prone to getting angry when human irresponsibility or negligence cause harm. And I think that’s a good thing. It shows that it matters to you. I recall that a few years ago, someone did something that hurt my father. It’s something I would certainly have let pass if it was done to me and I could have done so similarly for my father. But I felt that my loyalty as a son precluded me from ignoring what had happened. And so, I let my feelings of upset, even anger, be known.
God was ‘angry’ at an attack against the Jewish People. It wasn’t personal anger. After all, God is only ever impersonal. It means that God cared about what had happened and wasn’t willing to let it go. If it is your own honour and rights that you are caring about, the anger is an anger of entitlement – and something to be avoided at all costs. But if it’s the honour of others, or God’s honour that you care about, that anger might well be very appropriate.
Parsha in a Nutshell
Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, acted zealously in last week’s portion to stop a public display of immorality. He is rewarded, in this portion, by being made a Priest.
God commands Moses to attack the Midianites in retribution for their successful attempt to seduce the Jewish people to idol worship. The division of the land of Israel amongst the Tribes is discussed. Five sisters come forward to petition Moses regarding their right of inheritance. They believe that Moses has made a mistake and Moses asks God, who answers in their favour. An amazing concept in Jewish thinking – a few young girls can know the law better than Moses, the lawgiver himself! Nobody is infallible and nobody has a monopoly on understanding truth.
Moses is instructed to climb Mt. Nebo to look at the land into which he may not enter, then to appoint Joshua as the leader of the Jewish people in his stead. The portion concludes with a detailed explanation of the Temple offerings relevant to each festival.