One of my biggest challenges as the mother of two young (in other words, highly emotionally driven) kids is the temper tantrum. I myself was an expert tantrum thrower as a child, so I’m convinced some of their “ability” is genetic, and some is simply payback for my awful emotional behavior as a child. Sorry, Mom!
When a tantrum starts, I try my best to stop it immediately before it gets really out of hand. However, if I’m unsuccessful it usually means I need to go to my backup tactic, which is simply to ignore the irrational behavior. This isn’t my first choice method because it usually means one of my children is now screaming and flailing their body, possibly in public, and I have to ignore it in order for the ordeal to end. I often get knowing, compassionate looks from other moms as I implore them with either my words or just my own looks, “Pay no attention.” While it’s not pleasant in the moment, depriving these irrational demands for attention of the attention they’re seeking can be the best way to end them.
This week we come to a giant temper tantrum in the Torah. We read from Parshat Korach, the famous story of rebellion and betrayal, but also leadership. The narrative details a revolt within the Israelites from Korach, Datan, and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares the revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a rebellion of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which becomes a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.
When Moses hears of the uprising, he sends for Datan and Aviram to come to him. They answer, “We will not come!” and respond instead by listing all the injustices that Moses has brought upon them. He took them from their warm home, from their “perfect” land to a terrible, horrible place. As a parent, this is clearly a tantrum if I’ve ever seen one. While they go on and on, Moses stands by with God simply waiting for the tantrum to end. Moses even says to God, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” Moses, like the hapless parent who just wants the tantrum to end, doesn’t know what else to do with these rebels other than let them yell it out.
One of the many responsibilities we have in any relationship – partner, parent, or coworker – is knowing when to allow people the space to vent their anger in a safe way and then help them put the pieces back together through dialogue and discourse. The hardest part is stopping ourselves from reacting and simply providing that safe space.
Of course in Parshat Korach those who led the rebellion faced a fate much worse than an exasperated parent (although my children might disagree). Still, the lesson of the Torah portion is to let cooler heads prevail when possible, even if in this case the heads in question never really cooled.
There’s a saying taught to preschoolers that goes, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” This mantra seems to be a great way to teach gratitude and calm responses, but unfortunately it discounts upset feelings as bad or wrong. I know several teachers who have modified the phrase slightly to, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” While it doesn’t rhyme as well, it reinforces to the child that feelings of disappointment are natural, but a tantrum is what’s not welcome. If only Moses had been a preschool teacher.