The other day I was driving from the westside to the eastside through downtown Olympia and I just couldn’t believe we had gotten to this point. Everyone who was out, casually going about their day, was wearing a mask, keeping their distance from other people, and walking passed closed and boarded up businesses.
It’s not that I’m opposed to these measures–I fully support them in keeping with best practices to slow the spread of the virus. This is the way we fulfill the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.
No, what I couldn’t get over was the fact that we are living in these seemingly dystopian times due to the mismanagement of the virus, and that if our federal leadership had taken control and directed a coordinated, thoughtful, science-based response to the pandemic, we might be in a very different place.
And this leads me to my normative emotion these days: anger.
I have been angry at what has brought us to this point. Angry that the occupant of the White House is a compassionless narcissist who is unwilling to govern. Angry that public health and empathy have become pawns in a culture war. Angry at the inability to do what is uncomfortable even though it is right.
Anger is a theme of this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat. In yet another instance of the Israelites rising up and complaining–this time about a lack of water–Moses gets angry. First he turns to God, who tells him to simply talk to a rock in order to bring forth water.
But when he turns back to the Israelites, he is overcome with anger, crying out, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?!” He then strikes the rock with his rod, and water flowed. God however punishes Moses for not trusting that water will flow just by speaking.
While on the one hand, you could read this story as a condemnation of anger–Moses’s anger leads to his punishment–we can also read it the other way–that it was Moses’s anger that ultimately produced results. Anger in and of itself is not a negative emotion, it is, rather, what one does with that anger that is key.
We are also witnessing anger on a national scale in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other recent victims of police violence. Demonstrations in pursuit of justice and against systemic racism have swept the country, including here in Olympia. A story just today in the New York Times suggests that Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history.
There are a lot of ideas as to why this is happening now in this moment in time–I would think that the hatred expressed from the highest levels in government combined with general fear and anxiety brought on by the coronavirus are both contributing factors–but we can not argue with the fact that this is the culmination of centuries of oppression that continues to this day.
How can we be surprised that people are angry? And how can we argue when that anger is expressed?
How can we argue with Moses, who did not want to listen to God’s directive to just “talk”? Moses knows perhaps that there is a time for talk, and there is a time for action, and in order to bring about the results we want we need to stop talking and pick up a rod.
He may have been punished, but he got results. Indeed, he was punished by the very entity that tried to control him; it is hard to imagine God was objective at this point. Moses was not interested in being patient and having a dialogue. Moses was interested in quenching the thirst of his people.
Listening and dialogue are good and necessary, it is how we learn about each other’s stories and experiences. Patience is also good, change does take time and sometimes generation shift. And, too, anger is good. Anger demands action. Anger can get results.
If you are feeling anger, that’s OK. If you are not feeling angry, maybe you can let a little anger into your heart. Then, let’s take that anger and create something meaningful from it.