How can we be surprised that people are angry? And how can we argue when that anger is expressed?

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 pikuakh nefesh, saving a life.

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 default 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 in the Torah portion, Hukkat. The Israelites rise up and complain, again — this time about a lack of water — and 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?!” (Numbers 20:10). He then strikes the rock with his rod, and water flows. God punishes Moses however, for not trusting that water would flow just by speaking.

While on the one hand, you could read this story as a condemnation of anger — Moses’ anger leads to his punishment — we can also read it the other way, that it was Moses’ anger that ultimately produced results. Anger in and of itself is not a negative emotion. Rather, it is 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. A New York Times story suggests that Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history.

There are a lot of explanations about why this is happening now at 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 cannot 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. They are how we learn about each other’s stories and experiences. Patience is also good. Change does take time, and sometimes, generational 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, take that anger and create something meaningful from it.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein is both committed to creating vibrant Jewish community and using a spiritual voice to speak to issues of social justice and common concern.

He has been serving Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, WA since graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003. He also holds an MA in Jewish Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from the University of Washington, and has trained in professional mediation.

He is currently serves as Immediate Past President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

He has completed the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and was a member of the third cohort of the Clergy Leadership Incubator. He is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow and was a Brickner Rabbinic Fellow through the Religious Action Center, andwas recently named as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by the Forward.

Rabbi Goldstein is the author of numerous published articles, essays and liturgy. He writes regularly on his blog, Rabbi 360 and produces two podcasts, Torah tl;dr and The Golden PodCalf, and a webseries, Carpooling with Rabbi.

He is deeply engaged in local community affairs and active in Interfaith Works of Thurston County and the Faith Action Network, a statewide advocacy organization, and is one of the founders of Concerned Clergy of Olympia. He has testified in front of the Washington State Legislature on numerous occasions.

Rabbi Goldstein lives in Olympia with his wife, Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg (RRC ’03), and two sons, Ozi and Erez. They recently took a social justice themed cross country roadtrip, which they recounted in their blog, Two Rabbis Cross America.