Yayechi: On Being a Madman

Which of these expressions best reflects Judaism’s philosophy about “anger management?”

1. “Don’t get mad, get even.”
2. “Keep calm and carry on.”
3. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

“Don’t get mad, get even” – that is, revenge -- may be the most commonly heard of the three, and may seem like wise and prudent advice. But it is flatly forbidden by Torah. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen” appears in the same verse as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). “Getting even” violates all three prohibitions at once!

The Talmud (Yoma 23a) provides the example of revenge as refusing to lend to someone who has previously refused to lend to you. Similarly, Proverbs 24:29 advises: “Do not say, ‘I will do to him what he did to me; I will pay the man what he deserves’.” Maimonides calls the desire for revenge “a very bad trait,” often prompted by our “vanity and emptiness (which) are not worth seeking revenge for” (Laws of Character Development 7:7). So, revenge is out.  Here’s my expression to counter the urge to “Don’t get mad, get even:” “’Tit for tat’ makes one a brat.”

“Keep calm and carry on,” (a saying which has an interesting history http://www.keepcalmandcarryon.com/history/) seems like a better candidate for Jewish advice when applied to anger. After all, in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob bitterly curses the fierce anger of his sons, Simeon and Levi, who killed all the males of Shechem in retaliation for their sister Dinah’s rape. (Genesis 49:5-7) And there are many other examples in the Bible of anger leading to disaster, such as an enraged G-d bringing plagues at Sinai and elsewhere in the desert, and Moses striking the rock and being barred from entering the Promised Land.

But, “Keep calm and carry on” is NOT the Jewish approach to anger management. First, it is completely impractical. Humans get angry, and for all sorts of reasons. We are emotional beings. Judaism does not insist that we do what we are incapable of doing. More importantly, why should we remain calm when we experience or learn about evil or injustice? Should Shimeon and Levi have just “remained calm and carried on” when Dinah was raped? Should Moses have just “remained calm and carried on” when he witnessed brutality, Pharaoh’s intransigence, and the people’s idolatry? G-d is depicted in Torah as furious with injustice. Should we be any less furious? Keeping calm and carrying on as if nothing is amiss is wildly inconsistent with the Torah's command, “Justice, justice shall thou pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Which is why I think that, of the three, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” popularized by the movie “Network,” most closely expresses Judaism’s attitude toward anger management. When we see evil and injustice, we should get angry. And we are commanded  “Do Not Stand Idly By the Blood of Your Fellow.” (Leviticus 19:16). The Torah does not criticize Moses for killing the Egyptian overseer who was brutalizing his charges. G-d awards Phineas and his descendants with the priesthood because Phineas stepped forward and killed two engaged in flagrant impropriety. So, inaction in the face of evil or injustice is no virtue.

Of course, Judaism has much more to say about anger management than “Be mad as hell and don’t take it anymore.” As Rabbi Hillel taught, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others; all the rest is commentary; now go and study.” This fundamental rule of Torah applies to anger, too.

Here are a few key points in the “commentary” about anger that we should study frequently:

1. When we are angry, we are apt to exaggerate and generalize, abandon restraint, and say and/or do things we will later regret. “When a person becomes enraged, [even] if he is wise, his wisdom deserts him. (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 66b). It is, therefore, almost always prudent to delay reacting until one calms down. Take a walk. Discuss the situation with someone objective. Consider the consequences of your prospective reaction. “Sin crouches at the door, its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:5-7). Our challenge is not to eliminate anger, but to be its master....to use it appropriately and productively. That usually requires calm reflection, which is extremely difficult during the initial stages of anger.

2. If we are angry at someone, we should tell them. As the poet William Blake wrote:

“I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe; I told it not, my wrath did grow.”

Not revealing the reason for one’s anger also does nothing to change the offensive behavior.

3. In all but a small number of exceptional cases, we should tell the offender in private. Public shaming is a grievous offense, the subject will likely be more defensive in public (and unlikely to acknowledge wrong-doing), and we may gain a reputation as a hot-head.

4. Limit our anger to the facts of the incident, rather than attacking the person’s character. We are obliged to be fair, even when angry, and even if the other person is not fair. “In justice shall you judge your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:15) Did the person who made us angry have any just reason? Were we completely innocent? Acknowledging some validity to the other's action, and some responsibility on our part, also helps us temper our anger. 

5. Give the other person the opportunity to apologize and point out the value in continuing the relationship. Tragically, many family relationships and friendships suffer or terminate over petty slights.

6. Forgive, when warranted. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” (Leviticus 19:17). Do we not wish to be forgiven our transgressions? How can we ask G-d, and others, to forgive us, if we do not forgive others?

Anger is not always to be avoided, nor even minimized.  But anger is so potentially destructive, to the target, to the person feeling it, and to "innocent bystanders," that it always warrants management ... and this requires much study.  One excellent source, from which much of this d’var Torah is taken or inspired, is Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1, Chapters 24-28.

Shabbat shalom!

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3