Rav Kook Torah

Psalms 81: The Strange God within Us


לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֵל זָר וְלֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל נֵכָר.

“There shall not be a strange god within you; you shall not bow to a foreign god.” (Psalms 81:10)

What does it mean to have strange gods “within you”? The Sages taught that the psalmist is referring to evil impulses, and in particular, uncontrolled anger:

“You should consider a person who rips his clothes in anger, or breaks his vessels in anger, or scatters his money in anger, to be akin to an idol worshiper. This is the stratagem of the evil inclination. Today it tells a person to do this, and tomorrow it says, do that, until eventually, it urges him to worship idols — and he will go and worship idols.

Rabbi Avin said: What verse alludes to this? “There shall not be a strange god within you; you shall not bow to a foreign god” (Psalms 81:10). What is the “strange god” that is within a person’s body? That is the evil inclination.” (Shabbat 105b)

Why is it so terrible to be angry? In what way is it like serving foreign gods?

Just Destructive

Even though we may be disappointed and upset when things don’t go our way, balanced people do not let their anger consume them to the point of losing control of their actions. We understand that, in the end, God is good to all; He watches over His creations, and all things will ultimately be for the best. This knowledge has a soothing influence on our raging emotions.

But if our anger causes us to lash out, breaking and smashing objects, this is a sign that we have lost awareness of God’s providence and beneficence in the world. Such fury is an overwhelming force, beyond our control. Like a toxin, it infects our personality, and emotions of anger explode into a blind rage that is directed at all and sundry. It even leads to the moral depravity of idolatry, as we are enslaved by our own ungovernable rage.

In general, negative impulses are detrimental to our spiritual goals. Nonetheless, they typically correspond to our physical wants and desires, and they may generate positive outcomes. When God declared that His creation was “very good” (Gen 1:31), the Midrash surprisingly notes that the word “very” alludes to our evil inclination (yeitzer hara). How could that be? Because without such impulses, people would not build homes, get married, and have children (Kohelet Rabbah 3:11).

Thus, these impulses are not “strange gods.” While they may distance us from God and our spiritual aspirations, they are not foreign to us and our physical needs.

Anger, however, is a “strange god within.” It is foreign to us, even to our physical nature. Anger lacks any constructive aspect, it plays no positive part in our lives.1

Past, Present, and Future

The Talmud lists three examples of uncontrolled anger. The first is a person who tears his clothes in anger. This typifies the response of one who learned about a setback or disaster that already took place. A common reaction to hearing bad news is to tear one’s clothes.

The second case is a person who smashes his possessions. This is typical of the enraged reaction of one experiencing an infuriating event.

And the third case, of a person scattering money in vain, is common to the reckless behavior of someone upset at the prospect of a future event that will thwart his wishes and interests.

All three examples of wasteful rage — over past, present, or future events — indicate the uncontrolled fury of a person who has lost sight of God’s goodness and oversight in the world, and as a result, has become a slave to his anger.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. 4, 13:1, pp. 268-269).

1 The Talmud notes, however, it is permissible to feign anger for educational purposes. This contrived emotion is not out of our control, but serves as an instructive tool.