Wednesday, 26 Oct 2011

Written by René Pfertzel

I remember a session led by Rabbi Charles Middleburgh last year called “The Angry Rabbi”. It was about how a Rabbi deals with his/her anger when it necessarily appears during his/her journey. How should we react when a situation creates in us a feeling of anger? Is it a good or a bad feeling? Some would argue that anger is a sign of failure: we were not able to work through a situation in a successful way, and in that case, anger expresses frustration. It may also be a fuel, a way to state our limits when we are overwhelmed by the ego of others. There is nothing positive in keeping such strong emotions inside ourselves. But the question is whether or not anger is the best way to express our discomfort and our frustrations.

Of course, our tradition warns us against anger. This is what The Vilna Gaon wrote in his book The Juggler and the King, p. 41:

 “Anger is the ultimate expression of pride; anger and a feeling of closeness to God are mutually exclusive. One cannot subordinate himself simultaneously to God and to his own idealized himself… Anyone who wants to achieve closeness to God must exercise the opposite of pride: humility and self-effacement”.

When we are angry, does it really mean that we have high self-esteem? Or does it rather reveal that we are depending upon the recognition of others? My father was a very angry person. He frightened me as a kid, because I never knew when he would blow up and shout. We had no clues whatsoever. As a young boy, I was always very cautious when I talked to him because I was not sure whether my words would irritate him or not. Later on, when I became an adult, and he became older and (a bit) wiser, we once had a discussion about his temper. He explained me that he was a soldier during the war in Algeria in the beginning of the sixties, a war that France lost, a war that was never really sold in our society because France was, and still is, ashamed of what was done there. And the soldiers who took part of this conflict, called euphemistically “the Events of Algeria”, came back home with this shame upon their shoulders. My father was 18 when he was there, and he probably never really understood what he was doing. He came back to France with frustration, anger, and a sort of inner violence that fueled his life. He never really overcame it.

I would like to quote Alan Morinis, a Mussar teacher, who runs an online program about Mussar, called “A Season of Mussar”1:

“The Talmud equates anger with the sin of idol worship (Shabbat 105b). This comparison offers a great condemnation of anger because idol worship is one of the only three sins that are judged to be so heinous that the Torah demands that a Jew choose death rather than violate them (the two others are murder and prohibited relations). But this association of anger with idolatry also reveals why anger is such a frightful power. When a person loses his or her temper, he or she becomes overwhelmed and overpowered by the emotion of anger. By allowing that to happen, a person yields authority over his or her life to this raging emotion, and it is then the power of anger that the angry person serves. By authorizing anger to domineer and control him or her, the angry person supplants and negates the governing role of God”.

That is just the point I wanted to reach. In our Torah portion, Noah, we learn that because of the corruption and wickedness found in the world, God decided to destroy it, except one family and some animals.

“The time of all flesh has come before me, because the earth is filled with chamas, violence, because of them” (Genesis 6:13).

Only one man was found righteous enough to be saved, and with him a pair of all living animals, even the non-kosher ones! And then, we have this long story of the building of the ark, the description of the forty day flood, and eventually how the ark landed somewhere between Turkey and Armenia.

Who is this God who plans to destroy everything on earth, a world that he has created? And, more important, did it change something afterwards? Is the earth a better place now because of it?

The Rabbis explain that the generation of Noah began to take all the benefits of life for granted. They felt no need to give thanks to God for what they enjoyed. For example, the Talmud states that “the people of that generation said: For what reason do we need God? We have no need of rain. We get an abundant supply of water from other sources, from all the streams and wells of the earth” (Sanhedrin 108a).

But, as Qohelet said, eyn hadash tahat hashemesh (Qoh 1:9) there is nothing new under the sun, and these words are still valid today. What really happened? God is the Creator; he has the power of life and death over all creatures, as we say three times a day in the second Amidah blessing. And in this story, he chose to use this ultimate power to put an end to his creation.

What did he have in mind? I would argue that God was angry. This would not be uncommon in the Torah. There are a lot of stories depicting an angry God killing his people because they have sinned. But the conclusion of the flood story teaches us something astonishing. We read in Genesis 8:22:

As long as the earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest,

Cold and heat,

Summer and winter,

Day and night

Will never cease”.

God regrets! God repents! God was angry, his pride overwhelmed him and he destroyed almost all life on the earth. Maybe God does not really appreciate when someone disagrees with him? Or maybe this happy ending teaches us something more powerful about anger.

Anger has a strong destructive power. Anger destroys the angry person as much as the person who caused this anger. Maybe the only way is to give up? God promises that he will never again act as he did. He could have destroyed the world again and again, as it does not seem to have improved that much. But he decided to let it go, to leave humanity the space to experience its successes and failures.

I would also say that God engaged himself in the process of tikkun atsmo, of self-repairing. Anger may, or may not, be a good emotion, as it releases tensions, frustrations which otherwise would be kept in us and might slowly destroy us. But it has to be overcome by a process of repairing. Acknowledging that there is something wrong is the first step. Only the first step.

Maybe finding a place where he could undertake this process of self-repairing would have helped my father; he could have left his anger on the other side of the sea, acknowledging that he was only a pawn in a larger political game over which he had absolutely no control. But for this, the process has to be completed; a space has to be left, given.

René Pfertzel
October 2011



1 A Season of Mussar, Week 3, Ka’as/Anger, The Mussar Institute

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.