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Holy Anger

Yom Kippur 5776

September 25, 2015

Most of us have been there at some point — a nasty email from a co-worker, a fight with our partner, some exasperating thing our kid does that’s just the last straw in a long, tiring day. We get angry, really angry, the kind of anger that takes over our whole body. For me, it starts in my neck, a tense feeling that pulls my shoulders up toward my ears. All over my body, muscles clench and release. My vision dims like I’m looking through a screen. I can’t understand what people are saying to me, and I begin talking — yelling — so quickly I can’t even process what I am saying. I begin to move rapidly and without purpose, back and forth, waving my arms. My anger feeds on itself, driving me further and further, and it can take hours or even days until I feel normal again.

The last time I had a moment like that, I almost drove my family off the road. We were on our way home from the Passover retreat at Ramah Darom; I wasn’t having a great morning to begin with, we left late for the airport, and then I got pulled over for speeding in Baldwin, Georgia, a town notorious for its traffic enforcement. Yonah was crying, the big kids were bickering, and I was filled with rage. Ticket in hand, we started off down the road; but not ten minutes later I changed lanes without checking my blind spot and nearly drove into another car, and when I pulled the wheel back the other way I almost lost control altogether. We talk about being blinded by anger, but in that moment it was literally true: I was so angry, I couldn’t see clearly.

Thank God no one was hurt, but it was a terrifying experience for all of us — the kids still mention it from time to time. Sitting in the passenger seat after Rebecca wisely insisted she drive the rest of the way, I finally admitted to myself that I had areal problem with anger. I could no longer deny that my rage was spinning out of control. I was filled with so much anger, frustration, and resentment that there was hardly room for anything else. In that moment I saw the truth in the teaching of our Sages: an angry life is no life at all.[1]

Having seen anger in myself, I started to see it everywhere: in the tone our elected representatives used to speak with and about one another; the vicious rhetoric of political commentators and social critics; personal attacks on social media and blogs. Within the Jewish community, I hang my head in shame as one group after another denigrates and disparages other Jews for holding beliefs different than their own, in public forums and private conversation. In his d’var Torah for Rosh HaShanah, my teacher Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson described this past summer as “among the ugliest summers that the Jewish People has ever endured.” I saw terrible things written, things that I won’t dare repeat, about teachers and colleagues — people I know to love the Jewish People and the State of Israel with all their heart — just because they took a position for or against a certain foreign policy. We live in a world seething in raw, unfiltered anger, to the point that last Shabbat morning, as I was on my way here, I watched two people get out of their cars at the red light at 18th and Rittenhouse and start screaming in each other’s face.

Indeed, some have suggested that we are losing our ability to feel anythingbut anger.[2] We pay lip service to America as a can-do country, a place where sheer determination carries us past any frustration; and yet anger has been shown toundermine perseverance.[3] Our tradition has long recognized the inherent threat posed by unrestrained anger. The wise King Solomon, in the book of Kohelet, advises us to “Banish anger from your heart and remove evil from your body;”[4] the Talmud, citing this verse, concludes that “a person must train himself to act peacefully.”[5] Maimonides generally teaches us to follow the middle, balanced path in most behaviors;[6] but with respect to anger, Maimonides writes that “anger is an extremely evil characteristic, and a person should distance himself from it to the utmost extent… even regarding a matter about which it would be reasonable to become angry.”[7] For Maimonides, any amount of anger, no matter how small, poses a grave threat to moral behavior.

Anger also shows up as a central motif in the Yom Kippur prayers. At the end of each repetition of the Amidah, we pray, אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, זְכֹר רַחֲמֶֽיךָ וּכְבֹשׁ כַּעַסְךָ, “Avinu Malkeinu, remember Your compassion and subdue Your anger.”[8] Unetaneh Tokef, the centerpiece of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, describes God as קָשֶׁה לִכעוֹס וְנֽוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת, “Slow to anger and easily appeased.”[9] We sing our belief that “God is patient, holding back wrath… that it is difficult to arouse God’s fury.”[10] And a dozen times over the course of Yom Kippur we recite the thirteen divine attributes — among which we find אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, “slow to anger.”[11]

These thirteen attributes, found originally in the book of Exodus as Moses prays for God to forgive the sin of the Golden Calf, were in use as a penitential prayer long before the Second Temple was built.[12] The Talmud imagines God appearing to Moses in the form of a hazzan wrapped in a tallit to teach him how to recite these prayers.[13] The litany of attributes emphasizes God’s merciful qualities, and אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם in particular points to God’s patience in allowing time and space for teshuvah.[14] 

It’s easy to understand why, on a day in which we repeatedly confess our sins, we would underscore God’s compassion, the slow pace of Divine anger — but these passages, for all that they emphasize God’s patience, nevertheless presume that anger is part of the Divine being. In describing God as “slow to anger,” we acknowledge that God will eventually grow angry; even a God of abundant patience can be pushed too far. And if God becomes angry, and if our tradition teaches that we lead a moral life by emulating God’s characteristics,[15] might we find a holy purpose in our own anger?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel thinks so. In his seminal work The Prophets, he writes:

[A]nger is something that comes dangerously close to evil, yet it is wrong to identify it with evil… Like fire, it may be a blessing as well as a fatal thing — reprehensible when associated with malice, morally necessary as resistance to malice… Anger may touch off deadly explosives, while the complete absence of anger stultifies moral sensibility.[16]

Heschel distinguishes between human anger, “charged with connotations of spite, recklessness, and iniquity,” and the “righteous indignation” of Divine anger.[17] Rabbi Shai Held, in his ground-breaking analysis of Heschel’s thought, notes that while “in human beings… anger is deeply entwined with impulsiveness and loss of self-control… God’s anger is not morally compromised in the ways that human anger all too frequently is.”[18] We look to God as the ultimate judge, the teacher and arbiter of right and wrong, and Heschel emphasizes that a judge must be impartial and “to be impartial to people, one cannot be impartial to evil.” For Heschel, “God’s concern is the prerequisite and source of [God’s] anger.”[19] Divine anger demonstrates God’s profound care and concern for human well-being; God cares too much not to become angry at a world of widespread injustice and cruelty.

From this perspective, we can distinguish between two types of anger: self-absorbed anger and holy anger. Where self-absorbed anger is a destructive force, holy anger purifies. Self-absorbed anger sees only its own injury; holy anger, on the other hand, is aroused when we observe others subjected to injustice as well. Holy angercreates change, while self-absorbed anger stands in its way. Self-absorbed anger blinds us — the Psalms speak of eyes “wasting” from anger[20] — while holy anger clarifies our vision. Self-absorbed anger starts with fear and leads to hate, while holy anger begins and ends with love.

Martha Beck, writing in O, The Oprah Magazine, points out that “Anger always says: ‘That’s not fair.’”[21] All anger — even self-absorbed anger — relates back to a sense of injustice, just as Heschel insists that “Justice, mishpat, is the measure of [God’s] anger.”[22] We transform self-absorbed anger into holy anger when we take the particular injustice that has been visited upon us and find in it a larger systemic pattern of injustice that exists in the world. Moreover, while self-absorbed anger leads inexorably toward bitterness and hatred, holy anger stands on a foundation of love and compassion. Held observes that “God’s love is inextricably interwoven with God’s wrath;”[23] holy anger grows out of love when the object of that love — humanity, in God’s case — suffers malicious harm. As Heschel himself asks, “Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?”[24] 

On the contrary. The greatest evil, according to Heschel, is “indifference to evil,” an evil doubly insidious for being “more universal, more contagious, more dangerous.”[25] Who among us has never once closed our eyes to injustice, decided it would be easier not to get involved? Here too we find holy anger directly opposed to self-absorbed anger: self-absorbed anger, in making myself the primary victim, encourages my indifference to the suffering of others, while holy anger demands that I intercede.

I’ve decided it’s time for anger — but for holy anger, the kind that won’t let you sleep at night until you find a way to make change in the world. Because holy anger took children out of sweatshops and into schools. Holy anger did away with slavery and Jim Crow. Holy anger inspired Zionists to take a two-thousand-year-old dream of Jewish independence and turn it into a very real State of Israel. Holy anger freed Soviet Jewry and ended South African apartheid. Holy anger gave women the vote and fueled the Freedom Rides and drove marchers across the bridge in Selma, and holy anger will carry us across the next bridge, and the next, and the next.

It’s time for anger because we live in a world in which rape and sexual slavery have become weapons of war.

We live in a country that suffers 33,000 deaths and 84,000 injuries a year from gun violence, and our leaders persist in doing nothing to solve the problem.

We live in a country where a poor white child is twice as likely to attend a good school as a black child of any income level.

We live in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, on the far left and the far right, and leading candidates have no compunction about courting the support of “White Nationalists” — the people we used to call Neo-Nazis.

We live in a time of #yesallwomen and #blacklivesmatter.

We live in a country that incarcerates those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction, rather than treating their conditions.

We live with a concerted, organized effort to delegitimize the State of Israel on college campuses and ostracize those students who speak in favor of Jewish self-determination in our homeland, and we live with an Israeli government that does not take seriously its responsibility to find and prosecute Jews who perpetrate acts of terror against Palestinians.

We live in a city where human beings sleep on the street at night, right outside our homes.

We live in a time when there is a greater chasm between the haves and the have-nots than ever before, when the minimum wage is lower in real terms than ever in its history, when women still earn less than men for the same work.

We live in a world of ISIS and Assad and Ahmadinejad and I say to you today, with God as my witness, if you are not angry about something in this world of ours you are not paying attention.

So I’ve decided to stay angry. I’m keeping my anger so I can sanctify it by pushing back against injustice, because that’s what this day is really about. We’re not just here to feel bad, apologize, wipe the slate clean, and get back to business as usual; at its heart, Yom Kippur is about change and transformation, about turning our flaws and failings into positive growth, about taking self-absorbed anger and making it holy so that we can serve God by serving others. So that we will speak out not only for ourselves but for the weak and dispossessed, the stranger and the outcast, the “other.” So that we can find, in God’s holy anger, the deep and abiding love that seeks justice, above all else, for all people. And in that way may we be sealed in the Book of Life. גמר חתימה טובה

[1]        Pesahim 113b; Maimonides, Laws of Personal Character 2.3.
[2]        Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 34.
[3]        C. R. Snyder, The Psychology of Hope (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 48.
[4]        Kohelet 10:11.
[5]        Ta’anit 4a.
[6]        Maimonides, Laws of Personal Character 1.2-4.
[7]        Maimonides, Laws of Personal Character 2.3. The contradiction between this passage and 1.4 — in which Maimonides counsels the middle path for anger as well — is well known but beyond the scope of the present discussion. See Lehem Mishnah 1.4-5; Be’er Yehudah 2.3; Sha’arei De’ah 2.3.
[8]        Mahzor Lev Shalem, 270, 356, 388, 424.
[9]        Mahzor Lev Shalem, 316.
[10]        “V’khol Ma’aminim,” Mahzor Lev Shalem, 321.
[11]        Ex. 34:6-7.
[12]        Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus 34:6-7.
[13]        Rosh HaShanah 17b.
[14]        See commentaries of Rashi (but see also Mizrahi and Siftei Hakhamim), Ibn Ezra (Long Commentary), and Cassuto to Ex. 34:6.
[15]        Sotah 14a; Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Massekhta d’Shira, Parshah 3.
[16]        Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins Perennial Classics, 2001), 360.
[17]        Heschel, Prophets, 363.
[18]        Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013), 152-153.
[19]        Heschel, Prophets, 363.
[20]        Psalm 6:8, 31:10.
[21]        Martha Beck, “All the Rage: How Anger Can Work in Your Favor,” O, The Oprah Magazine, March 2015.
[22]        Heschel, Prophets, 370.
[23]        Held, Heschel, 147.
[24]        Heschel, Prophets, 365.
[25]        Heschel, Prophets, 364.

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