The Hebrew for this morsel of wisdom employs alliteration to aid our memory: koso(his cup), kiso(his purse), ka’aso (his anger). A person’s nature can be defined by how he drinks liquor (koso), how much charity he dispenses (kiso), and how he controls himself when provoked (ka’aso). The key to all of these things is self-control. In some aspects of our life, we have too little self-control and at times we have too much. Of course, Mussar is all about gaining self-control and partaking with moderation those things that are permitted to us. We are in the process of always controlling and balancing our character traits. Our Sages use these three examples of key measures of our self-control because they can be the hardest to manage.
Whether someone drinks for pleasure or to numb personal pain, alcohol consumption can turn into a destructive habit. Our control of what we consume is a measure of character. It can also be that which bankrupts us, or brings us l'chaims (to life). Are we using it to celebrate life or to remove life? Does it drain our bank accounts or does it celebrate the holy moments in our lives?
Though so often people fail to restrain their kos (cup), many times we are overly restrained with our kis (purse) when those around us are in need. Do we understand when to loose the strings of our purse for the sake of tzedakah? Are we able to have compassion for those around us in need or does it take extenuating circumstances for us to give?
Regarding how to moderate our behavior when provoked, there is an amusing story about Rabbi Hillel and a wager on how difficult it was to provoke him to anger.
It once happened that two men made a wager with each other, saying, He who goes and makes Hillel angry shall receive four hundred zuz. Said one, I will go and incense him.
As the story goes, this man waited until Hillel was in the bath and called out to him with a strange question. Hillel got out of the bath, put on his robe, went to the man and patiently answered the question. Afterwards he returned to the bath. The man called out "Is Hillel here, is Hillel here?" Hillel got out of the bath again and patiently answered the next stupid question. He settled into the bath again, and guess who called out to him "Is Hillel here, is Hillel here?" Even after the third strange question Hillel answered with patience. Frustrated, the man asked his fourth and final question.
"I have many questions to ask", said he, "but fear that you may become angry."
Thereupon he robed, sat before him and said, "Ask all the questions you have to ask".
"Are you the Hillel who is called the nasi of Israel?"
"Yes", he replied.
"If that is you", he retorted, "may there not be many like you in Israel."
"Why, my son", queried he.
"Because I have lost four hundred zuz through you", complained he. "Be careful of your moods", he answered, "Hillel is worth it that you should lose four hundred zuz and yet another four hundred zuz through him, yet Hillel shall not lose his temper."
-- B. Shabbat 31a
May we all learn the lesson of moderation from Hillel and how he controls himself when provoked (ka’aso)