In his commentary on Pirkei Avot known as the Shmoneh Perakim (Eight Chapters), the Rambam argues that the source of Moshe’s punishment to not be able to enter the Land of Israel was because he had a tendency to succumb to his anger.
It is one of the most noticeable traits which Moshe exhibits throughout the Torah. There are moments in which his rage is justifiable, but nonetheless, he often allows his anger to get the best of him. It is a trait with which he never quite comes to terms. For example, throughout his retrospective in the Book of Deuteronomy, the anger he feels towards the people is evident.
While one could easily argue that the first example of Moshe’s anger is in his killing of the taskmaster, there is an explicit reference to Moshe’s anger in Parashat Bo… Or is there? (There is. Maybe…)
After announcing the final plague, Moshe says:
All of your servants will come down to me, and they will bow to me, saying: Go! You and the entire people who are at your feet! After that I will go; and he went out from being with Pharaoh in wrathful anger. (Exodus 11:8)
Now, while it seems obvious that the Torah is referring to Moshe’s anger, there is a creative way to read this, as R’ Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in his commentary Hak’tav V’hakabbalah entertains, that the anger actually belongs to Pharaoh – that Moshe left and Pharaoh stays in his anger. While I appreciate the creativity, I think the surface read is clear.
So let’s review some other opinions as to what stoked Moshe’s anger.
So, according to Rashi, Moshe feels personally disrespected by Pharaoh despite the fact that, according to tradition, Moshe always maintained k’vod malkhut, a respect for Pharaoh’s authority. We see this at play in the verse quoted above – Moshe never said Pharaoh would bow down to him, just Pharaoh’s servants. Rashi holds that Moshe’s anger is a result of his feeling slighted.
The Netziv has a problem with Rashi’s interpretation. He says: “I find [Rashi’s comment] difficult, if that is the case, he would have been angry throughout the entire conversation. Then how could he have received the divine spirit and heard God’s word? Rather, it seems that Moshe was trying to share with him the entire statement, but Pharaoh did not want to listen. This is why Moshe was angry.”
While Rashi feels it is personal, the Netziv sees that as above Moshe’s character, and his anger is due to the fact that Pharaoh refuses to heed Moshe’s warning. This seems to be backed up by the following verse, in which God explains to Moshe that Pharaoh can’t hear him because God needs to be able to show God’s power throughout the land.
So what are we to make of Moshe’s anger? The context matters, and perhaps what the Torah offers here is foreshadowing of what Rambam raises will be Moshe’s ultimate downfall.
Moshe made it through the entire experience of the Ten Plagues without allowing the stress of his position to get to him until the very end. But, ultimately, it does get the better of him. Likewise, he makes it through nearly the entire wandering through the wilderness before ultimately succumbing to his anger. Yes, he has moments in which his anger gets the best of him throughout the 40 years, but the source of his punishment – the anger at Mei Merivah – immediately following the death of his sister Miriam. Miriam dies on the 10th of Nisan in the 39th year of wandering, exactly one year before Yehoshua leads the people across the Yarden.
Perhaps we should read this verse in which the Torah explicitly mentions Moshe’s anger to be a cautionary tale, to remember that anger is a toxic emotion which leads to toxic behaviors. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches:
What is dangerous about anger is that it causes us to lose control. It activates the most primitive part of the human brain that bypasses the neural circuitry we use when we reflect and choose on rational grounds. While in its grip we lose the ability to step back and judge the possible consequences of our actions. The result is that in a moment of irascibility we can do or say things we may regret for the rest of our lives…The verdict of Judaism is simple: Either we defeat anger or anger will defeat us.