As a liberal rabbi, I am so sick of being ridiculed and insulted by people on the religious right. I get so full of anger that I see red, and all I want to do is fight back. And then I remember traditional Jewish wisdom on giving in to anger.
Here’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarizing several classical rabbinic sources on the dangers of letting anger be one’s master:
“The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life,” [the sages] said (Pesahim 113b). Resh Lakish said, “When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him” (Pesahim 66b). Maimonides said that when someone becomes angry it is as if he has become an idolater (Hilkhot Deot 2: 3). (For the entire piece, visit here.)
The general understanding of these texts, as I’ve been taught them, is not that we should try to suppress or banish the experience of feeling anger; rather, that we should beware of letting it be our guide. We will rarely make good decisions while in an angry frame of mind.
I’m really struggling with anger – I guess my own personal brand of anger that is actually part of a cycle of thoughts & feelings I’ve churned and repeated most of my life. My counselor of the past 12 years – who is one of the most dear friends I have – taught me long ago the bit about anger being a secondary emotion, and that before we feel anger first we feel something else, however briefly. Usually the primary emotion is fear, though it can also be sadness, disappointment, anxiety, or some cocktail of all of these.
Of course, there’s the kind of anger that flashes in life-or-death, fight-or-flight situations, which is an evolutionary advantage & survival skill, but that’s not the kind of anger I’m talking about. I’m talking about walking around, day by day, doing good work at my job, being a good parent (mostly), and spending way too much time feeling worried, afraid, and anxious about the future – and after a while, that swirl of discomfort blossoms into anger. An anger that I carry around and then do things with that probably aren’t helpful.
Fortunately, the kinds of stupid things I do with this anger aren’t the kinds of things that involve physical violence or wanton destruction. They’re more along the lines of posting FB responses in an angry tone to total strangers I disagree with on political issues. Yeah, I know – ooh, very scary.
In the Talmud, ancient rabbis compare the act of dwelling in anger as a form of idolatry. (For those who like to look stuff like this up, visit BT Shabbat 105b). Then there’s this oft-quoted passage: