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Rabbi's Erev Shabbat Message

09/17/2021 09:11:15 AM

Sep17

Shabbat HaAzinu: Art Thou Greatly Angry?

אַל תְּהִי נוֹחַ לִכְעֹס. וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ. 

Be not easily provoked to anger; 

And turn one day before your death. - Pirke Avot 2.10

 

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,

 

So you think you have every right to be angry? 

you think you are right to be angry?

As HaShem said to Jonah, sulking under a kikayon tree: Art thou greatly angry? 

 

There are times when it happens to all of us. We are angry for a good reason, and we by G*d are going to be angry and we are going to express our anger.

 

Within our community, in the past year, we’ve experienced some pretty righteous anger directed against our leadership, including me. Enough anger that some believe that there must be something legitimate to be angry about.

 

On Kol Nidre evening I addressed the the topic directly and it's worth revisiting through the lens of a regular erev Shabbat when we are urged to listen, on this Shabbat Ha'azinu.


When is it right to be angry? When is anger a good thing?

 

Anger is a good thing, we are told; righteous anger, anger that moves against injustice, anger toward that which deserves it.

 

We have powerful examples of anger in the Torah. Israelite prophets rail against political venality and social cruelty; and Jacob’s sons, in Genesis,  Shimon and Levi, viciously avenge the rape of their sister. In each case, a situation of righteous anger.

 

There are also places where we miss the anger that should appear: that raped sister, for example, should have had a Thelma and Louise moment. Or, in popular media closer to our own time, consider the film “Defiance.” I have heard Jews say that their favorite scene in the film is the moment when Daniel Craig, playing a Jewish hero, shoots a Nazi in the face. Very satisfying. 

 

I. Anger isn’t good

 

Or is it? Our tradition begs to differ:

 

רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, וְאַל תְּהִי נוֹחַ לִכְעֹס. וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ. 

Rabbi Eliezer said: be not easily provoked to anger; And repent one day before your death. - Pirke Avot 2.10

 

bar Kappara taught: An angry person has managed to acquire only anger. That is to say, nothing beneficial comes through anger; in the end one is left with nothing but the anger itself. - BT Kiddushin 41a

 

"The angry person does not find favor in the eyes of fellow creatures; that person is in fact hateful in their eyes. And thus, such a one’s deeds are not received favorably. Even if one possesses knowledge of the Torah and has many good deeds to one’s credit, people cannot learn from that person." - Orkhot Tzaddikim 12.5

 

The problem here is partly due to mistaken assumptions.

 

1. The Israelite prophets in general were not angry, they were just loud. Only one, Elijah, was indeed famous for his anger. Unfortunately, he ended up by causing the murder of children through his anger, and HaShem literally had to remove him from the world to spare it from his anger. His anger was clearly out of control - out of his control, as well.

 

2. Shimon and Levi were condemned by their father as the kind of people who for fun maim animals, and, when they are angry, massacre the innocent. Their anger was clearly addictive, and without focus.

 

3. Most challenging of all is the realization that in Jewish ethics there is no concept of “rights” - only obligations. 

 

So in Jewish, no one has a “right” to be angry. Yet some of us are targeted for abuse, others victimized by malice aforethought, and many suffer injustice. Where does that leave them? And where does that leave anger?

 

II. The danger of anger

 

Let’s consider anger as we know it and as we assume it. 

 

In the Hebrew language and in ancient Israelite usage, anger and fear share the same root - ר.ג.ז The spectrum of meaning includes “to be agitated; to be unsteady; to be trembling; to be angry.” Prophetic use of the term tends to be referring to the earth itself, trembling from the anger of HaShem.

 

Another word for anger in the Torah is ח.ר.ה - It’s the quality that HaShem observes in Cain. Closely related is the Haron. According to the Sages, whenever the term haron occurs in the Tanakh relating to the anger of HaShem, there is always lasting damage. Opposite this, haron af is the divine quality of being Slow To Anger that we rely upon during these days of Teshuvah and attempts at atonement.

 

One of the more empowering doctrines of Judaism is the teaching that we are each created in the image of the Divine. In Jewish ethics we are encouraged to see in ourselves the ability to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the vulnerable, and raise up the fallen, exactly in that divine image and reflection. 

 

And anger? If our tradition’s stories about HaShem’s efforts to shield us from the anger of powerful human beings isn’t enough of a hint, consider that the anger of HaShem does lasting damage - and, we, who are the walking, talking image of HaShem, our anger is damaging too.

 

III. The effects of anger

 

consider the mystical doctrine of Sefirotic balance: where do we find anger in the attributes of the world, of Hashem, also found in ourselves?

 

There are levels of existence: first is physical, second is emotion, third is intellectual. (It’s all spiritual - spirituality for us is in the integration of our aspects, achieving wholeness, shalom, in the process).

 

Anger does not exist as a primary attribute in the sefirot; rather, the mystics teach, it is created and found in imbalance. When our emotional state between mercy and judgement leans too far toward judgement, anger comes into the world.

 

Evil, we are taught, comes into the world in the same way, from the same place. The unbalancing of our emotional life is the most dangerous thing there is about us humans.  Anger destroys.

 

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai was famous in the Talmud for his anger: it ruined the wheat crop and the dough failed in the kneading bowls. HaShem sent him to live in a cave until he learned to control it.

 

Anger divides. It pushes us away from each other. Getting angry at someone is the opposite of connecting with them. It destroys community.

 

That’s why Moses is punished so severely in the famous story where he hits a rock instead of speaking to it. Two thousand years of Jewish commentary are still mystified by HaShem’s response - but one of the most simple explanations for the gravity of his act is simple. He took a staff that had been sitting in the Holy of Holies, a staff that had become a symbol of community unity after the rebellion of Korakh, and he used it in anger. (see "The Danger of Anger", a sheet at Sefaria.org, for this insight.)

 

Finally: the ancient ethical text Sefer haYashar points out that anger makes you stupid. As long as you are stuck in that emotional state, you are literally trapped there, far below the cooler levels of the intellect. That intellect with which you might be able to successfully address the injustice, the malice, and the suffering that do exist.

 

"we say that the causes of wrath are too little reflection, the folly of the one who is angry, the lack of companionship of the wise and the intelligent, who could teach him to subdue his anger, and the companionship of fools and wicked men. He does not recognize what an ugly quality anger is. Nor does he recognize how many good qualities there are in forbearance and patience. For no one who is patient will ever regret it, nor will he need to do anything for which everyone who hears of it will reproach him and shame him, but let all of his deeds be in quietness and gentleness, just as it is said (Proverbs 16:32), “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit better than he that taketh a city.” - Sefer HaYashar 6.7
 

Poor Jonah; he became so angry that he asked for death, because things didn't go his way. He could not see his way to mercy, nor forgiveness, nor even that his behavior was endangering so many around him who were innocent. Perhaps that's why we read his story every year on Yom Kippur. Perhaps one day we'll get that shock of recognition.
 

So what are we to do with our righteous anger? Turn it into an offering; put it on the altar of your heart, and let it warm and encourage you to reach beyond it, toward the higher thought processes that you are gifted with.

 

1. At this time of forgiveness, forgive yourself for indulging in anger, and make a vow to stop doing so.  

 

The higher level of our lives is without anger, but one does not reach it by suppressing anger. One must face it and overcome it, using the tools HaShem gave each of us to learn about ourselves and to come to understand the effects of our actions. Anger hurts the angry most of all.

 

2. Recognize that anger is counter-productive, because anger is a loss of control. Spoiler alert: Thelma and Louise do not go on to live happy, peaceful lives. At best anger is a momentary notification that something is wrong; but if you stay angry, you’ll never heal it.

 

3. Who would have thought that ancient Hebrew grammar would give us the best guidance of all, teaching us that above and beyond anger is a true vision of what’s causing it. “Rogez” means anger and fear. The modern psychological theory is that rather than feeling sad/anxious/ashamed or any emotion that makes me feel weak, I feel anger, and spill the toxic energy on others. And that way I don’t have to feel vulnerable.
 

According to our tradition, our teacher Moshe Rabbenu only got angry three times in his life. And each time, our sages say, Moses forgot something vitally important. In one case he forgot the law, in another he forgot the situation - and finally, he forgot himself.

 

Moshe’s vulnerability, cloaked in anger, caused him to use a symbol of peace to strike a rock (remember that HaShem is often referred to as our "Rock and Redeemer"!) We do the same when we lose control of ourselves through anger. We lose focus, we lose coherence - and we lose the high ground.

 

Is it not better to admit to being afraid, among others who are afraid, and have hands to hold? All anger does is leave you by yourself.

 

Better to admit to our fear. It’s more difficult, but there’s a grace there. And it’s the only way toward more hak'hel.

 

Hak'hel et ha'am, "gather the people in sacred community" (kehillah) we are commanded. A few weeks ago we read this in the Torah, a command for Sukkot of this shemita year.  Coming together, to learn and to be, in community, is the shemita mitzvah. 

 

This is the greatest challenge of our coronavirus isolation: the challenge is for us to learn not to exacerbate our physical isolation by letting the vulnerability we feel, disguised as anger, push us emotionally away from each other. 

 

Turn from anger, turn toward wholeness. 

Turn toward life, even in the midst of all this death. 

אַל תְּהִי נוֹחַ לִכְעֹס. וְשׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתְךָ. 

Be not easily provoked to anger; 

And turn one day before your death. - Pirke Avot 2.10

 

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Fri, September 24 2021 18 Tishrei 5782