Does God “Get Angry”?

Last week, we saw the commandment of le-hidamot bi-drachav, to make ourselves similar to Hashem’s ways.  One of those ways is to be erech apayim, long to anger.  Part of learning how to incorporate that trait into our personalities is knowing what Tanach means by referring to Hashem as long to anger, and that has two components: 1) Does Tanach describe Hashem as getting angry, or as showing anger? 2) Where and how does this anger arise, and how does that translate to us?

While anger will take several posts to discuss, a useful starting point is Berachot 7a’s discussion of Hashem’s anger. Michah 6;5 tells us to remember what Bilam tried to do to us, and Hashem’s righteousness with us. The Gemara understood that to mean that Hashem did not “allow” Himself to become angry the whole time of Bilam, because Bilam knew how to exploit Hashem’s anger, as it were.

The Gemara wonders whether Hashem actually becomes angry, and cites Tehillim 7;12, וא-ל זועם בכל יום, Hashem storms with anger each day.  The Gemara says that that anger lasts only a moment, but no one (other than Bilam) knows the time of the anger. Bilam, who did, could have found a way to curse the Jewish people during that moment, but Hashem prevented that by disrupting that routine, and suppressing His anger all that time.

Hashem’s Daily Anger

This is obviously not a piece that we can take literally; we need to understand the point the Gemara is making, and see how it applies elsewhere.  Maharsha notes that a later discussion on that page speaks of idolaters using sunrise as the time to worship the sun, and suggests that it is that act that stimulates Hashem’s wrath.

That train of thought suggests that Hashem’s anger is based in humanity’s starting each day with idolatry, with acts that put them at odds with how Hashem wants the world to run.  This fits, by the way, with Rambam’s comment, as we saw last week, that the words haron af, wrath, in the Torah often refer to idolatry, and kin’ah, jealousy, always does.

Penei Yehoshua and Tselach both wonder at the Gemara’s citing a verse from Tehillim, when many verses in the Torah itself speak of Hashem’s wrath. They answer that it was obvious to everyone that the Torah describes Hashem’s response to specific sins as anger; the novelty of the verse in Tehillim is that there is a set time, every day, when Hashem is described as venting wrath (we’ll discuss why in a moment).

If we combine that insight Maharsha’s point that Hashem is responding to daily sins, we would seem to be learning that Hashem is described as becoming angry about both extraordinary sin, but also by ordinary, everyday sin.

Even before we evaluate the reaction to sin, note that there is a reaction. It is often easy to allow some level of sin to become routinized and not worth noticing, but Hashem’s daily anger, it would seem, is a response to exactly that rote, ordinary, usual way of doing business kind of sin.  I see a lesson here already, that we cannot let colonized sin, sin that isn’t going to be uprooted anytime soon, to dull our sensitivity to it.

Anger Has an Impact

Rashi to Shemot 4;14 cites R. Yehoshu’a b. Korchah from Zevachim 102a, that haron af always has some kind of impact, some kind of punishment attached to it.  In the case of Hashem’s daily za’am, Midrash Tanchuma to Tetsaveh 10 cites R. Shim’on b. Gamliel that ever since the Beit haMikdash was destroyed, there is no day without a curse to it.  When the world is fully redeemed, however, Hashem will return Nature to its original berachot, the original state it was created to be in.

The comment contains two remarkable points, one about the world, one about anger.  It first reminds us that the world we live in, with all its beauty and bounty, is not the world Hashem wanted, it’s the world we “forced” Hashem into making, by sinning in such a way (and continuingly, since this is the results of daily anger we are experiencing) that Hashem could not give us all that we might otherwise get.

This isn’t minor anger, either.  In Avodah Zarah 4a, R. Papa contrasts this verse in Tehillim with Nachum 1;6, לפני זעמו מי יעמוד, before His anger who can stand?  The Gemara eventually answers that Nachum refers to that anger if it were expressed against an individual, and Tehillim towards a community. It is the combined strength of a community (either by virtue of its greater pool of merits, or its ability to spread the pain of the punishment that comes out of the anger) that allows it to survive, but an individual could not. If so, we don’t mean Hashem has a moment of anger where, as it were, He punches a wall to let off steam. It is a moment of anger in which Hashem responds to real sins, but limits the response to whate we can tolerate.

Anger Itself, Not Just Being Long to Anger, As a Kindness

That explains many commentators’ seeing this anger, overall, as a kindness to us.   Tselach argues that all of the 13 Attributes of Hashem are of kindness, and that the kindness here is the brevity of the anger, that Hashem restricts it to a moment, with the rest of the day full of more easily recognized kindness.  Peri Megadim (in his Torah commentary, Tevat Gomeh) says that it is Hashem’s punishing us bit by bit, rather than letting it pile up to the breaking point.

Interestingly, Radak to Yeshayahu 27;10 approvingly quotes his father’s explanation of why some verses refer to Hashem as taking vengeance and having wrath (such as Nachum 1;2) while others refer to Hashem as not having wrath.  Note that the Gemara in Avodah Zarah could easily have been understood as saying that this was a difference between individuals, towards whom Hashem refrains from expressing wrath, and communities.

In addition, Mechilta de-Rabi Yishmael to Beshalach, differentiates the verses from each other by the spiritual status of the Jewish people—when the Jews are acting well, there is no wrath, when they sin, there is.

Despite that, Radak’s father suggested that the wrath God is described as having is only towards Hashem’s enemies, as it were (I hope to clarify who those enemies are in coming weeks).  Towards the Jews, Hashem never allows the scales of justice to build up to the point that there is wrath, by punishing us for our sins little by little. In this view, the Jews’ sufferings are part of Hashem’s kindness, wiping away enough of our sins that it never builds up to wrath.

Imitating Hashem’s Daily Za’am

This already offers several ways in which we might incorporate erech apayim into our own lives, even if we weren’t going to spend two more posts clarifying. It suggests that one element of acting as Hashem is described in Tanach is differentiating between the sins of an individual and the sins of a group, reacting somewhat more openly to the latter, since they are better able to take it.

In addition, we would act differently to people who have not acted wrongly than to those who have. Even if we are not fully expressing our reaction to those who act wrongly, we should act better, in some ways, to those who are, as far as we can tell, fully blameless (otherwise, we’re not being erech apayim, we’re simply ignoring sin).  We would also respond differently towards the wrongs of those with whom we have some kind of continuing relationship and those with whom we do not.

Finally, it would be a kindness on our part to make our well-founded ire (meaning: the other person is actually wrong, not just that we’ve decided we’re upset with them) known to those whom we love, so that our upset not build up to the point that it comes out as wrath. This suggests that the daily za’am referred to in Tehillim is a way to be sure that we not suppress our anger, that we not ignore it, but that we also release it in productive ways, ways that might stimulate those around us to recognize where they are in the wrong.

Be Angry or Show Anger?

One assumption I am making here is that erech apayim is a trait we are meant to incorporate, not just act on. I am assuming we are supposed to be angry about these wrongs, but train ourselves to be arichei apayim, long to express that anger, in some of the ways we’ve reviewed.  Last week, we saw that Rambam rejected anger, and promoted only demonstrating anger.

Rambam said that, but then he also included erech apayim in his list of Attributes we are to emulate. He may have only meant the length to anger part, not the anger itself, or thought that acting angry was enough to qualify as imitating erech apayim.  Sefer haChinuch 611 makes that possibility explicit, arguing that anger is a bad emotion, and that Hashem certainly doesn’t have anger, nor should we.  Yad Ramah to Sanhedrin 105a also denies that Hashem has actual anger, and that the verses that speak of it only mean that Hashem punishes people in a way that would indicate anger in a human being. This is particularly interesting in Yad Ramah, since he opposed other of Rambam’s rationalist moves, but accepts this one.

What isn’t clear is how that translates to us.  In all the other character traits, we also said Hashem doesn’t have those traits, since we don’t think we can describe Hashem. In those other cases, we were told to adopt those traits ourselves. The phrasing wasn’t “just as Hashem is called compassionate, so, too, you act compassionately,” it was “be compassionate.” Why would we change it here?

Possibly, as I suggested before, Rambam and Sefer haChinuch found this trait so dangerous, so problematic, that he could not imagine we would be told to adopt it. At this point, I can only note that it changes erech apayim from all the other ways in which Hashem is described, singling it out.  In coming weeks, I hope to show there is room to believe that we are indeed prohibited from having ka’as, anger, but are allowed and supposed to develop charon af, although we also have to develop length of af, coming to charon af only rarely, and in reactions to situations I hope to lay out.

Halachah Corner

I want to point out, as I close, one halachah that relates to today’s discussion. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 591;8 rules that an individual should not recite Mussaf on Rosh haShanah before a quarter of the day has passed. Beit Yosef connects this to the fact that Hashem has za’am every day at that time (Abbaye says it is in the first quarter of the day).

Since Rosh haShanah is a day of judgment anyway, and this is a time for strictest judgment (the za’am stemming from people’s sins), better not to pray. A community, with its greater merits, does not have this worry. (Note that this explanation differs from the claim in the Gemara that Hashem doesn’t yield to za’am when it comes to an individual, since no individual can withstand it; perhaps Rosh haShanah is the one day a year when, if an individual thrust himself into  Hashem’s consciousness, as it were, the za’am might be turned in that direction).

Taz notes that’s only true of Mussaf, which doesn’t have to be said that early, but the recitation of Shema, with its blessings, which is required to be said in that time period, is said even by an individual.  The merit of fulfilling that mitzvah perhaps protects the person from the judgment and wrath.

Whatever the explanation, it shows that halachah took this discussion seriously enough to see that as the way the world works, and to have it affect our Rosh haShanah prayers.

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Mr. Martin Kaufman was educated at Yeshiva Universty and New York University"s Graduate School of Business Administration. Was Chairman and CEO of Philipp Brothers, formerly one of the world's largest commodity trading companies. He is a global consultant to entities in the financial and natural resource sectors all over the world. Mr. Kaufman has lectured extensively in numerous Adult Education programs for many years and presently gives shiurim in the New York City area. He has also served on two boards of Yeshiva University, amongst many other Boards. Mr. Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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