Parashat Vaera: Anger and Idolatry
In describing the onset of the plague of frogs – the second of the ten plagues that God brought upon Egypt – the Torah writes, "Va’ta’al Ha’sfarde’a" – "the frog ascended [from the river]" (8:2). Curiously, the Torah here speaks of the frogs in the singular form, as though there was only one frog. The Sages of the Midrash explain that in fact, the plague began with only a single large frog. The Egyptians starting beating the frog in an attempt to kill it, but it reacted to the beating by reproducing. Now confronted by a group of irritating frogs, the Egyptians proceeded to beat them, too, but once again, their beatings just caused the frogs to reproduce further. This process continued until there were so many frogs that the country was overrun by them and faced a severe national crisis.
The obvious question arises as to why the Egyptians did not stop beating the frogs once they took note of this pattern. It quickly became clear that their beatings only exacerbated the problem. So why did they continue? Didn’t they realize they were only making matters worse?
The Steipler Gaon (Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) answered that anger, quite simply, leads to irrational behavior. When people become enraged, they act without thinking. Indeed, it made no sense to continue hitting the frogs when this only aggravated the problem. But this is what angry people do – they act insensibly, without thinking.
I once saw with my own eyes a person in a fit of rage throw a violent punch against a concrete wall. He suffered several fractures in his hand and went to the hospital. We can only imagine his embarrassment when he had to tell the doctor in the emergency room what happened. Similarly, there is lots of talk nowadays about "road rage," the dangers of angry feelings that erupt while driving. A person could be rolling along peacefully down the highway enjoying some good music, until somebody cuts him off. He gets angry, and then goes into a frantic rage that endangers his life as well as the lives of everyone else on the road.
This kind of senseless behavior is typical of people overcome by anger. The rational faculties shut off, and they act without thinking.
This might explain the Talmud’s astounding comment that a person who becomes angry is considered as though he worshipped idols. At first glance, it seems difficult to understand why anger would be compared to pagan worship. One answer, perhaps, is that our Sages refer here to this aspect of irrationality. Idolatry is totally irrational. It makes no sense at all to worship a statue made by a human being, and which one can destroy or throw in the trash at whim. Nor is it logical to worship a tree that a person can just chop down and then use for a barbeque. And yet, for many centuries, people around the world believed in the power of this worship. The Rabbis in the Talmud thus teach us that anger is akin to idolatry. It causes one to act insensibly like idol worshippers. When a person becomes angry, he loses the ability to think rationally, and herein lies the point of connection to idol worship.
For good reason, our Rabbis warned of the evils of anger. Of course, we cannot reasonably expect never to become angry. The Talmud tells of the great Sage Hillel that he never became angry, but most of us cannot reach that standard. Still, we must make every effort to retrain this emotion and keep it in check. Once a person isn’t thinking rationally, there’s no limit to what kind of damage he can cause to himself and others. It behooves us to make every effort to control our anger, to be forgiving, sensitive and understanding, rather than run the risk of losing our cool – and our senses.