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Torah Studies
20--Parshat T'TZAVEH
Feb 18, 2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...erekh apayim, equanimity...

(Exodus 28:16) ...zeret orkho v'zeret rokhbo; [The High Priest's breastplate shall be] a handbreadth in its length and a handbreadth in its width.

Every language has its charms, but for my taste, the idioms in Hebrew are so wonderfully expressive that I suspect languages that developed later envy Hebrew's primal expressions. The translation into "equanimity" does not capture the two words of this value. Erekh means "length" and apayim may technically mean "anger," but comes from the word meaning a short breath. Hebrew posits that anger is best described by the physical expression of rising rage: rapidly snorting or panting, particularly through the nose. "Equanimity" is, perhaps, a lesser translation to "taking a deep breath" (or, at least, "waiting a long time before you start snorting like a charging bull," but that's harder to say to someone who is building up a head of steam before they let it explode!).

In some translations, the phrase is "long forbearing," which was a particular favorite of mine as a kid, though I never quite understood what it meant. But it does pick up on the notion that there is a certain distance to traverse – a distance in space or time – to get from one place to another.

The description of the breastplate in the Torah reading makes a similar point. A zeret is the length from the tip of the pinky to the tip of the thumb. While it is a convenient, if not exact, way to measure modest lengths, it also carries a symbolic meaning. A zeret is also the full measure of a person's grasp. That is to say, the deliberate action of extending your hand and wrapping it fully around an object is a more reliable measure of just how much you can hold onto than a quick grab or swipe. The breastplate worn by Aaron and subsequent High Priests bore the names and symbols of the twelve tribes and the sacred dice, the Urim and Tumim, and was called the "breastplate of judgment" (choshen mishpat). Torah instructs Aaron to wear it over his heart, so that the concerns of all of Israel and the responsibility of decision-making will rest there.

The full measure of the breastplate is symbolic of the full measure of deliberative justice that is expected of the High Priest – and, by extension, of all who judge. If all the concerns involved in any situation – not just the facts of a case, but its impact on all the people (the twelve tribes) and God's presence in judgment (the Urim and Tumim) – are to be included, there must be enough room to consider them all. The length (as well as the width) of both time and space must be ample, and the judge must take the time to traverse it all.

I am no stranger to anger; it has often been my closest friend. I know that it urges me to take shortcuts to immediate gratification and to rush to reaction when considered reflection is the better choice. To be erekh apayim is to resist the seduction of anger, that possessive partner, and to make room instead for inspiration (that is, breathing deeply).

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld serves a Conservative synagogue in a community that is adjacent to an ultra-orthodox enclave. He attends morning minyan in a house where a small group of local men gather somewhat informally. He does not observe Judaism as they do; he is therefore considered on the margins of "acceptable." Occasionally, he is honored with g'lilah, wrapping the Torah, a privilege that neither requires nor presumes any level of knowledge or piety.

One morning, Rabbi Kligfeld was the tenth man for the minyan. Just as the leader was about to begin, one of the other men present shook his finger at him to indicate there was no minyan present. A few moments later, a member of the local community entered and the service began.

Rabbi Kligfeld was hurt and angry. He stewed during the entirety of the morning service and didn't really pray; instead, he silently rehearsed what he was going to say to the offending party as soon as the service was over.

But when it came time to read the Torah, the homeowner, who organizes the minyan and had witnessed the earlier transaction, made a point of calling Rabbi Kligfeld to the Torah for one of the three aliyot. Rabbi Kligfeld reports that his anger lifted and dissipated immediately, and he learned an important lesson in how a considered response of Torah (quite literally!) is more effective than a response in kind.

Had he not been forced by circumstance to be erekh apayim, the chance to learn that lesson of Torah would have been lost.

Can you cultivate erekh apayim? It may be harder than it seems. After all, anger tends to sneak up on us and then rise suddenly, short-circuiting any sense of purposefulness. So try provoking within yourself some "safe anger." You have a matter about which you care passionately and hold strong opinions – politics, art, even ritual practice. Seek out an essay with an opinion diametrically opposed to your own, and work up a good head of steam! Then close your eyes and breathe deeply, bringing to mind the nature of your objection. Likely, you will begin with something like, "This guy's a moron!" But do not end the exercise until you have not only come to understand the real nature of your objection, but also discovered that lessons you have learned, perhaps even from Torah, have arisen to give you additional insight.

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