Vayakhel-Pedudei: Anger Management

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Our Torah reading for this Shabbat, the last of the Book of Exodus, is VaYakhel-Pekudei. It contains one of the basic rules in Jewish law concerning Shabbat observance: the prohibition on kindling a flame.  

 

In addition to actions actually related to fire, the concept of not kindling a flame on Shabbat has been applied metaphorically. Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz, known as the “Sheloh” born in Prague in 1558, applied the commandment to the emotion of anger.  He analogized quarreling and growing angry to kindling a flame.  On Shabbat, he wrote, a person should be especially careful not to grow angry or to become involved in disputes. (Shnay Luchos Habris, part 3, p. 119). 

 

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, born in Poland in 1876 and a master of the Mussar (Jewish ethics) movement, wrote in a list of regulations for his yeshiva that everyone should be careful not to speak angrily on Friday and Shabbos. He added that ideally a person should never feel angry; someone who nonetheless feels angry, should at least not speak out of anger. (Lev Eliyahu, vol. 1, p. 304).

 

We need look no further than the beginning of the Torah to see how pernicious and destructive anger can be.  Cain was angry that his offering to G-d was not accepted, and he killed his brother, Abel.  The Midrash states that it was the anger between people in the time of Noah that caused bitter fighting between them, which led to the ever-present stealing that sealed the fate of all mankind and resulted in G-d’s destruction of all people in the world (except for Noah’s family).  (Genesis Rabbah 31:2)  Rabbi Nachum Amsel notes that, as in Noah’s time, sometimes anger that starts small can grow into something very big and dangerous with unimaginable negative consequences.   

 

Anger can cause us to lash out with hurtful words or actions that we may well soon regret.  But the damage will be long-lasting or permanent.  As the Talmud explains, “When one becomes rageful, G-d becomes of no consequence to him” [and] “It is certain that the sins of the angry man outweigh his merits” (Nedarim 22b).  The Talmud also records that one of the three types of people whom G-d loves is a person who does not get angry. [The other two are those who are forgiving, and those who do not get drunk]. (Pesachim 113b)

 

So, if anger is to be avoided, is it within our ability to control it?  Yes, says the Torah.  G-d told Cain: “Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells of a psychiatrist who told him of a patient whose wife claimed that she was incapable of controlling her temper, and who used to scream hysterically at him and even slap him.  Yet she never expressed such anger in public.  The patient learned that when she was screaming at him in their car, if he opened the windows, she would immediately desist for fear of being overheard.  

 

Her calmer behavior in public proved, of course, that she could control herself if she wanted to.  Even in her anger, she was sufficiently self-aware and able to stop herself from lashing out when circumstances required.  We can all imagine similar circumstances in which we would likely be able to exercise restraint despite great anger, such as if someone wielding a gun was threatening to shoot us; we were angry at the President of our employer, at someone from whom we were seeking an important favor, or at a beloved young child.  

 

It is this self-awareness and self-control when anger flares that we can cultivate.  There is a moment between the flash of rage and its manifestation in which our brain evaluates the situation and asks, “Need I restrain myself?”  With practice, we can develop the ability to “take a deep breath,” to “count to ten,” and to otherwise delay our response rather than kindling the flame, be it Shabbat or any other time. 

 

Sometimes, our sudden anger is kindled as a reaction to anger expressed by others.  Our candle is lit by their flame.  Our tradition addresses this. When dealing with an enraged person, particularly someone angry with us, we should act as calmly as we can. Proverbs 15:1 teaches that calmness can be contagious: “A gentle response pacifies wrath; a harsh word provokes anger.” It is hard for someone to continue to shout if we respond gently and in an unruffled way.  Whereas if we respond to shouting and accusations with more shouting and accusations, the conflict is far more likely to escalate.  

 

What if we are falsely accused of wrongdoing when we feel that it is we who have been mistreated?  It is natural to react in indignation, but here also the Torah provides a behavioral model.  Jacob worked for seven years for Rachel, but Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah.  Most men would have been furious, but Jacob simply rebuked Laban and asked him his motives.  Years later, Laban accused Jacob of stealing his idols. After Laban had inspected all of Jacob’s possessions and did not find anything, Jacob felt that Laban had fabricated the entire accusation (Sforno). But despite his anger, Jacob did not say anything that would antagonize Laban or stir up animosity and rancor. He merely defended himself against Laban’s accusation and restated his own innocence.  The Chofetz Chaim said that from here we learn that a person should avoid becoming involved in a dispute, even when he knows that he is in the right. (Chofetz Chayim al Hatorah, on Genesis 31:32).

 

The advice that our tradition offers is advice that I myself sometimes need to take.  Especially after this year of pandemic lockdown, I sometimes snap an immediate angry response at my wife rather than taking the time to cool down before speaking.  Toldos Yitzchok tells us that Adam’s state of unconsciousness -- a deep sleep -- at the time of the creation of Chava (Eve) illustrates how a husband should relate to his wife. At times a husband should act in his home as if he were asleep and unaware of his wife’s shortcomings.  Even if a wife forgets or disregards her husband’s wishes, the husband should not grow angry and shout.  He should overlook minor faults in order to avoid domestic quarrels.  I haven’t yet found any rabbinic writing about a wife overlooking her husband’s faults, so perhaps I’ll have to break new ground. 

 

The next time you get angry, or are the recipient of someone else’s anger, try to remember these guidelines for a calmer and more productive response to anger.  

 

Shabbat shalom and thanks for reading this! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb