Rosh Hashanah's services gave us the opportunity to reflect on our lives as Jews and as caring human beings who look for ways to be better people. Our clergy's sermons were reminders of our better selves: that we are full of talent and potential; our world and nation has opportunities for us to express ourselves; that difficult emotions can be springboards for action.
Listen to Rabbi Elana's sermon here, a full transcript is below.
On Anger: An Invitation to Exploration and Discussion Rabbi-Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown * September 22, 2017 Second Day Rosh Hashanah
In the Spring of 2003 I was a college student spending my Junior Year abroad in South Africa. You probably remember well that the United States had just invaded Iraq and if you were an American traveling abroad at that time you weren’t very popular. Or, at least, you were greeted with suspicion. In that spring of 2003 that was true everywhere I traveled with the exception of the small village in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal where I lived for two weeks with a homestay family. There, we were treated as clerics of the ultimate religion: American celebrity culture. In the evening twilight after dinner a group of teenagers and young adults would gather with us outside on the hill to watch the sunset and talk. In exchange for the valuable information we could provide—answers to questions like: Were Tupac Shakur and Biggie really dead? And who was the bigger diva—Mariah or Whitney, our newfound friends shared with us their thoughts on South Africa post-apartheid. As I listened over the course of that week, and connected statements I heard to what I’d been hearing throughout my months in South Africa, I came to notice a pattern. The first response I always heard to the question—How do you feel about the years of apartheid? was: “We forgive. Of course we forgive. Now we all live together in harmony.” This had been Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s message and the purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation commission—no future without forgiveness.1 And the architects of the South African nation-building process were firmly committed to this rhetoric so that the country could move forward. But I wasn’t convinced. There must be more to the story. As our evening conversations passed together and our group developed greater intimacy, I pushed a little harder. “But is acceptance really your only response to the past?” And slowly the protective seal of the national narrative of forgiveness began to break and the stories and emotions of sadness and grief, and yes, residual anger, and rage came to expression.
After my experience in KwaZulu-Natal I became obsessed with this question of anger. Anger is not an emotion that I grew up feeling familiar with. I have always been a person, erech apayim slow to anger, or so I thought. I was in the beginning stages of exploring my own anger and at that point in time I did this through asking other people questions. How do people live with anger? How does anger function in society? What are its uses and its abuses? What is its impact when left unexpressed? I spent the next two months doing research around South Africa asking these questions to anyone who would speak with me.
Now, nearly fifteen years later, I have found myself returning to these questions as they have related to my personal life, to our life as Americans, to our Jewish community, and to our world in this past year. And just as I found all those years ago, there are no simple answers.
Do you remember the scene in the movie Network when Peter Finch’s character, a news anchor, explodes on air? I’m going to quote you a bit from that speech: “I don’t have to tell you things are bad, you already know things are bad. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, shopkeepers keep guns by the cash register, we know the air is unfit to breathe and we sit watching our televisions, hearing about the 15 homicides just today alone—and we’ve come to expect that’s just the way of things.” It’s a fantastic monologue and I don’t have time to quote it all here but it’s worth revisiting because those words said in 1976 could just as well be 2017—which is simultaneously comforting and alarming. And at the end of a glorious three minutes, Peter Finch says—“I want you to get mad. Because I’m mad. You’ve got to say I’m a human being and my life has value. Now I want you all to get up off your couch and go to your windows and yell: I’m mad as bleep and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Finch’s sermon gives a message opposite to the one that many religious texts, governments, and institutions give us because anger is considered a destructive force—and frankly we are afraid of what will happen once it is unleashed. But in this past year, I have heard from so many in our congregation: I’m angry you’ve said— and I don’t know what to do with my anger? Even though I’ve forgiven the person who hurt me to his/her face, inside I’m just still feeling really angry. Or, I don’t know how to process the anger that’s coming at me in the news every day? I don’t know what to do about the anger I feel at the direction our country is going.
And let me tell you, I’ve been angry too, really angry.
I’ve got a list as long as Peter Finch’s!
And it’s no wonder we’re all feeling it—we can’t escape it. Anger is an obvious buzzword this year. Here are just a few titles from news articles in this past year: “American Rage: The NBC survey”, “There are a Lot of Angry White People in America, and It’s a Problem”, “Charlottesville Rage: Blacks have 350 Years of Reasons to Be Angry”, and one from the New Republic to sum it all up: “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent”. Two of the top bestsellers this year—Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land that I know many of you have read cuz I’ve seen you carrying these books—came to similar conclusions about American anger. We want to leave it behind, or push it away, or pretend it doesn’t exist, or cover it over with smiles—but we find it’s still knocking on our door—whether from the inside or out. And because I couldn’t avoid it, and I was hearing from you that you can’t either—here it is—some High Holy Day initial reflections on a Jewish response to anger. The topic is so large that I can’t possibly do it justice in this one sermon. But I welcome your thoughts and continued discussion as we sort through this vast topic together. And I hope you can use this time to reflect on how you have worked with anger in this past year and how you might approach it in this New Year 5778.
Generally anger has had a twofold reputation. On the one hand it is considered an assertion of self-respect and protest against injustice and on the other hand it is a threat to decent human interactions. The latter takes the day in the history of western philosophical thought as well as in our Jewish tradition. The Western tradition defines anger in such a way that it always includes the assumption of vindictive behavior—and it is the uncontained behavior that results from anger that scared the rabbis of our tradition. Aristotle’s definition of anger, which becomes pervasive both in western thought and Jewish thought, considers anger to be an emotion that is a response to a significant damage to something or someone that one cares about and the damage itself is something that is wrongly inflicted. Anger contains within itself a pleasant hope for payback said Aristotle. In analyzing Aristotle’s definition philosopher Martha Nussbaum helpfully breaks down the path of anger:
1. Anger is necessary (when one is wronged) to the protection of dignity and self- respect.
2. Anger at wrongdoing is essential to taking the wrongdoer seriously (rather than treating him like a child).
3. Anger is an essential part of combatting injustice. But then,
4. That unfortunately anger is most often turned into internal revenge fantasies that eat us up or external causes of damage. It is because of number four that Nussbaum considers anger to be of limited usefulness to us.2
But other writers and theorists such as Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks
just to name a few disagree and they turn us back to number three—anger is an essential part of combating injustice and an essential part of the task of being human. But it is Nussbaum’s warning against indulging in our anger that more closely echoes the Jewish tradition, at least at first glance.
The sages were outspoken in their critique of anger and reserved some of their sharpest language to describe it. The texts are too numerous to list all of them here, but a few choice selections: From Talmud Bavli—Tractate Pesachim: “The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life,” they 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). The worst of the worst of Jewish sins. The Orchot Tzadikim (15th century) notes that anger destroys personal relationships because it drives out the positive emotions like compassion and empathy. Bad tempered people achieve nothing but their bad temper (Kiddushin 40b). According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The verdict of Judaism is simple: Either we defeat anger or anger will defeat us.3
Respectfully, I have to disagree with Rabbi Sack’s conclusion. Certainly it is true that there is a strong line of ethical teachings in our tradition that advocate for temperance. And certainly it is true, as we learn in the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, that when anger is misdirected into baseless hatred it can and often does, destroy the world. But I want to argue that when the Jewish tradition is talking about anger as idolatry, I believe our tradition is actually referring to reactivity— how we choose to behave in response to anger—as idolatry and not the value of anger as an energy in and of itself. Certainly, as we repeat in the thirteen attributes again and again throughout the High Holy Day season, being erech apayim—slow to anger—is a virtue. Learning how to process our anger appropriately and effectively, identify what is beneath it and understand it before we choose to respond is imperative. But when temperance is all that is talked about, and the move from anger to forgiveness is too quick—we run into the same problem that I encountered in South Africa. That the Truth to which anger points remains beneath the surface, left unprocessed, simmering and doing just as much damage as if it were left unleashed. Judaism certainly instructs us to not be reactive with our anger, but it also gives us so much more.
What else does Judaism teach us about anger?
1. Our anger is a wise teacher.
Anger is a useful signal. It is a wakeup call that something is wrong, somewhere. Listen to the voice, story or emotion beneath your anger. The temperance Jewish tradition teaches us is meant to help us pause before reacting and invite us to explore our anger. Anger and rage are considered secondary emotions. Primary emotions beneath anger may be: hurt, sadness, grief,
We learn this, if you remember, from the movie--Inside Out—remember that? Lewis Black is the character who plays anger: “Anger is all about getting the job done”, he says, “so don’t get in his way otherwise you might explode.” But it is sadness who is the true hero of Inside Out—sadness is the star because once sadness is recognized and given voice the main character’s anger abates and her joy is allowed to come to the surface.
In her book and her workshops Bay Area therapist Ruth King tells us that every single person has a rage inheritance. We know this—as human beings who were made in the image of God—a God that as we know was NOT always slow to anger—it is a normative part of life to experience rage and not something to hide from or be scared of. King suggests that understanding the traumas of our past, reckoning with them, exploring them, feeling them, is the key to healing rage and anger and rage inheritance is a gift because it provides us with a roadmap to healing.4
Certainly God and Moses both had a heavy rage inheritance.
We have examples throughout our Jewish tradition of God and Moses learning to deal with their anger by recognizing it in just this way. In the beginning of the Torah how did God deal with God’s anger at the people? Destruction—destroying the world with a flood. What was Moses’s response to injustice? Rage. Kill the Egyptian slave master. But as both grow in their leadership there are other teachings.
Rav Adda ben Chanina explains one change in God this way: if the Israelites had never sinned God would not have gotten angry—and later learned how to use that anger for good. Adda ben Chanina’s lore tells that if God had not gotten angry God would have only created the five books of the Torah and Joshua. Since God got angry—god gave all the other books of the Prophets. And giving us the Prophets was God’s way of teaching us how to turn the destructive use of anger into creating a better world.
Transmuting our anger by recognizing the story behind it.
This year I have been reckoning with my own anger. The dissolution of a lifelong friendship. One of my best friends from childhood got married this year and his wife has refused to meet me. Of course I have felt so much anger throughout this year because there was no recourse for me, I wanted to solve this issue together and yet the door was closed. Have I had a few retaliatory thoughts, you bet!
But when I paused and examined more closely what I was feeling I found something else—
I found sadness about losing a part of my childhood
I found sadness in growing older
I found sadness that friendships are impermanent.
Because I couldn’t repair my relationship with my friend’s wife I have channeled my energy into improving other friendships that needed a bit more love—
I practiced being honest with friends who I knew would be responsive about some of the hurts that have piled up over the years. And I did this in the most vulnerable way I could by acknowledging my own needs, feelings, and places where I may have missed the mark.
As a result I have a net gain this year of stronger friendships in my life and I feel less angry because I’ve addressed my underlying needs and channeled my energy of anger elsewhere. Perhaps you have examples this year from your own life?
In Jewish terms I think of this teaching as the channeling of the yetzer. Learning to channel our yetzer is point number two in Jewish teachings on anger. The yetzer is the inclination and force within us for good or for ill. It is also considered a creative force—derived from the same root as y’tzirah, creation. It is up to us to learn how to channel our Yetzer under duress. How can we constructively direct the energy of our anger?
We see an example of this in our Torah readings from Rosh Hashanah. Sarah gets so angry at Hagar because Sarah herself allowed her husband Abraham to sleep with Hagar, resulting in the birth of Ishmael. Sarah is so angry that she kicks Hagar out of her home. That anger could have resulted in destruction had Hagar retaliated. Instead God transmutes that anger, saves Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, and turns the angry act into one of great possibility, blessing Hagar and Ishmael as the originators of a great nation.
When we are met with anger that blows us away with its impact how do we respond? It is no easy task, but often when we are able to greet anger with spaciousness and creative possibility we open the door to opportunities unknown.
Finally, a third teaching from our tradition about channeling anger as energy comes from the word tzedek, which appears fifty times in the Torah and countless times on the lips of rabbis in each generation since. I truly believe that every time we see the word tzedek—or justice--in our tradition this is our tradition’s acknowledgement of the value of anger and recognition of its role in combating injustice. A closer look at Maimonides supports this point. The great rabbi writes that while one should not be a ba’al chamah, a hot-tempered person who is coes tamid, always angry, neither should one be like a dead person, without feeling. The intermediate course is to display anger when the situation is serious enough to warrant it. When one has suffered either a personal or collective injustice, anger is warranted, and tzedek is the response Judaism offers. Tzedek in our tradition means to grant everyone who has a right to something that to which he is entitled. Fulfilling duties towards others such as remedying the injuries of those who have been injured, is tzedek. Tzedek requires identification of a wrong and an action oriented towards righting that wrong. It sounds an awful lot like Aristotle’s definition of anger, but in this case the action of payback is geared towards improving conditions for everyone, rather than an individually-targeted retaliation. Channeling our anger through Tzedek is a healing enterprise both for ourselves and for the world.
This February, nearly two hundred people gathered in our sanctuary at Rodef Sholom for a meeting we held in response to the so-called Muslim Ban, an executive order that we at Rodef Sholom feel runs counter to the values in Judaism of loving the stranger—values we have stood by during every government administration. We gathered to listen to what you had to say by way of response, and to hear what you wanted to do about it. I was moved to experience the amount of anger, both conscious and unconscious that was in the room with us. Some of the anger was uncontained, particularly because there was not yet a clear direction for its focused use. I came to realize that our gathering was as much a needed pastoral moment as it was a call to action. As we’ve worked together as a community in the months since to become a sanctuary synagogue, to build spaces for Muslim-Jewish dialogue, to plan and attend rallies, to examine our social justice curriculum and so much more, I have noticed a change in our community. The gradual replacement of anxiety and anger with an emergence of enthusiasm, possibility, mission, and sense of purpose.
When we hear the cry of humanity—and when we look at that cry with calm and clear eyes, without turning away, even if the eyes of the world are bloodshot as Gandhi said—we have no choice but to feel—compassion, grief, anger, and rage. And thankfully God gave us that gift because without that righteous anger, things might never change. Anger stirs us from our moral lethargy and reminds us we, every one of us, is worthy of respect, kindness, and equal access to providing a good life for ourselves and our families. And here, we meet again with Martha Nussbaum, who urges us toward what she calls the transition: turning our anger into compassionate hope.
In 2003 I found myself traveling to destinations unknown. With no cellphone and just a notebook with a bunch of addresses and hand-written directions I hopped on trains and minibus taxis following trails to professors, activists, priests and bishops because I needed to understand what people truly thought of the Truth and Reconciliation process. What I found, far away from what the newspapers reported and in the safety of peoples homes—was that anger was alive and well, forgiveness was not complete, and that until energy was directed towards dismantling the structural roots of poverty and oppression healing would remain superficial. In the years since I lived in South Africa there has been an acknowledgment that while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a necessary first step in South Africa’s healing, it did not go far enough to help people address the real anger and frustration that resulted from decades of oppression. And, while important to forwarding the nation, was ultimately damaging to many. South African activists are continuing to channel their energy into labor organizing and addressing inequalities for which the end of apartheid was not a total solution. And, more recently, the media and academy are paying attention. Books and institutes are publicly acknowledging that South Africa must create safe spaces where anger and hatred can be heard. This is considered the new path to healing.
I have also since come to realize that my personal quest to understand how others have processed anger was really about myself and my own questioning of how I deal with the inevitable feelings of anger, sadness, disappointment, and yes, absolutely, injustice, that are a regular and routine part of our world. The need for expression is so much deeper than I ever would have imagined and I wonder if as synagogues, rabbis, and Jewish communities we have allowed enough space for the processing of anger and grievance and if we are effectively and positively channeling our collective and communal rage inheritance. It’s a question well worth further inquiry.
“Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz answered the question this way. He wrote, “Long ago, I conquered my anger and placed it in my pocket. When I have need of it, I take it out.” Pinchas didn’t ignore his anger. And neither did he allow it to take him apart. Instead, he carried it with him in his pocket. It was his to use. It didn’t use him. He didn’t waste it perpetuating grudges...or refusing to forgive...or controlling the people he loved...or trying to gain the upper hand. He just kept his anger in his pocket. And when he needed it – when it had a purpose to serve – he took it out, and allowed it the privilege of creating change, both within himself and in the world.”5
In this New Year 5778 may we have the courage to explore the stories beneath our anger, the patience required to work with our anger and transmute it into constructive, forward-moving energy, and may we be agents of change in our own healing and in the healing of the world.
Kein yehi ratzon: May it be so.
1 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999).
2 Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
3 Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. “Anger Management: Chukat 5775”. http://rabbisacks.org/anger-management-chukkat-5775/ accessed Sept. 9, 2017.
4 King, Ruth. Healing Rage: Women Making Inner Peace Possible (New York: Gotham Books, 2008).
5 Formulation and paragraph quotation thanks to Rabbi Kenneth Chasen’s Yom Kippur sermon 5773 13
Chasen, Rabbi Kenneth. “The Anger in Our Pockets”
Leo Baeck Temple Erev Yom Kippur Sermon 5773
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