On the Eight Day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a celebration is in order as God’s Glory appears and a fire descends, symbolizing the successful acceptance of the sacrifices. Yet the elation turns quickly to tragedy, when another fire descends, but this time, to consume Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, after they offer a foreign fire on the altar. Aharon is silent. The ceremony must proceed as planned. The usual regulations of mourning are suspended. Moshe informs Aharon and his remaining children to eat from the Meal and Peace offerings as intended but does not mention anything specifically about the Sin offering. When he discovers that they burned the whole animal and didn’t eat it, Moshe expresses anger.
Aharon defends the decision, arguing that after all he has experienced on that day, God wouldn’t want them to eat that sacrifice. Moshe hears Aharon’s argument and is pleased. The Sages explain that Moshe knew the law that they shouldn’t have eaten the Sin offering, but forgot. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 13) identifies this as one of the three times Moshe became angry and consequently, forgot a law.
Another Midrash (Sifra) reports a fascinating dispute between two sages as to the sequencing of the problem. Did Moshe’s anger cause him to make a mistake or did his mistake cause him to get angry? Chanania ben Yehuda argues that Moshe’s anger led to his mistake. However, Rabbi Yehuda questions this analysis because if it wasn’t for the mistake, he never would have become angry in the first place. The mistake led to the anger, not the other way around.
It is unclear which sage is correct with regards to Moshe. Yet, for the psychological message, we don’t have to pick a winner. They are both true. Anger both causes mistakes and is rooted in mistakes. The fact that anger causes mistakes is quite obvious. When we are angry, we tend to speak or act in ways that we later regret. Mistakes caused by anger destroy careers, damage relationships, and devastate families.
Less apparent, yet perhaps more important, anger is also rooted in mistakes. Some argue that we cannot control the way we feel. Emotions, they argue, just happen to us without any conscious control. Yet, mounting evidence indicates otherwise. Our thoughts, beliefs, expectations, perceptions and attitudes impact the way we feel. A core principle of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is that by working on identifying, challenging, and changing our thought processes, we can change our emotional experiences to be healthier.
The thoughts that lead to an unhealthy anger are almost always mistaken. They are what are referred to as cognitive distortions or irrational beliefs. While we should always be hesitant of critiquing Moshe Rabbeinu, following the lead of the two Midrashim above, at the very least we can try to glean a lesson for our own self-improvement. In Moshe’s case it seems his mistake was that he didn’t remember all the facts of the case and then jumped to the conclusion that the others were wrong. Are we prone to jumping to conclusions, to making judgments before we have all the facts? Do we yell at our kids, siblings, parents, friends, coworkers, or employees, before clarifying the whole story? If yes, it may be worth our while to work on training our brains to slow down, examine the situation from all sides and ask clarifying questions of others. By changing our mistaken thinking, we can change our emotions and help avoid the consequences that unhealthy emotions have on our relationships.