Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse fourteen

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There are four kinds of tempers: he whom it is easy to provoke and easy to pacify, his loss disappears in his gain; he whom it is hard to provoke and hard to pacify, his gain disappears in his loss; he whom it is hard to provoke and easy to pacify is a saint; he whom it is easy to provoke and hard to pacify is a wicked man.

This is the translation of Joseph Hertz, which I like because of the verb disappears; R. Travers Herford and Judah Goldin both use cancelled, which also gets the idea but is, I think, less evocative.

The commentary on this verse tends to focus on two points. First, to what extent these kinds of tempers are choices, rather than innate characteristics—and then a discussion of striving against one’s perhaps too-choleric nature. The second point is that even the saint does get angry sometimes, that there are occasions where anger is the appropriate response. Not the first response, not the second, but even one who is hard to provoke can be provoked, and ought to be provoked. For both of those points, we look at Moses.

I no longer have any sense of what people who haven’t been studying this stuff for years think about the bible characters. Moses, of course, is particularly tricky, as the baby in the reeds becomes the young man who kills the wicked slavedriver, the stammering shepherd of the burning bush, the miracle worker, the reluctant leader, the overburdened judge, the law-giver, the favored of the Divine, the eternal exile. And, of course, the horns. These days, though, the main thing I think of when I think about Moses is the anger management issues. My favorite Moses story is actually parsha Beha’alotecha, when (among other things) Moses says to the Divine hargeni na harog, just kill me now please. Or to approximate the emphasis-by-repetition: kill me with great killings.

Anyway, that’s how I think of Moses: cranky as all hell. But not holding a grudge, either—the stories in Exodus, particularly, seem to start all over again from scratch every time. But the character is there. Quick to anger, quick to pacify, is what I would call him. Which is not to say he isn’t a chasid, within the meaning of the above verse, I suppose. After all, it’s possible that Moses was, by temperament, even quicker to anger than he might be. And what angers him? The slave-driver, of course. Cruelty. Betrayal. Injustice. And constant whining. These, I submit are things that the verse tells us can justifiably provoke a saint to anger, however reluctantly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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