by Dr. Erica Brown
November 5, 2009
“Long ago I conquered my anger and placed it in my pocket. When I have need of it, I take it out.”
The Koretzer Rebbe
Ever feel angry, so deeply angry that you had to restrain unrecognizable forces of violence? Ever analyze that anger, try really hard to understand where it came from? Judaism recognizes that anger is passionate and that passion is not always a bad emotion when properly harnessed.
Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Ukraine, was a disciple of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut, and lived in the 18th century. This quote was taken from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s book on ethics, The Good Society. In thinking about what constitutes a good society, he reflects on the challenges that individuals battle everyday. Chief among them is anger. Anger can pull families and communities apart.
Many Jewish texts on anger focus on the issue of self-control, namely that anger is so overwhelming that it distances us from our capacity to make sound decisions. When we fail to control anger, anger begins to control us. If we were to look at ourselves from a distance during a moment of unbridled anger, we might see a person we hardly recognize, as if an extra-terrestrial being had overtaken us and stymied our ability to be our best selves. It’s no wonder that the Talmud states that a person who is angry is like one who worships idols.
Jewish anger management essentially boils down to free-will; it is the profound belief that you have the capacity to control every situation. The Koretzer Rebbe describes anger as an object that is so malleable that he could contract it and place it in his pocket. He moved anger; it did not move him.
Anger has utility, and there are times in Jewish law when we it is permissible to be angry if it has educational or emotional purpose, as the Koretzer said, “When I have need, of it, I take it out.” For example, we may need to exhibit anger to a child so that the child does not touch fire or run into the road. We may need to exhibit appropriate anger when people around us – friends and colleagues- do not behave ethically or kindly. But, in these instances, our anger must always be highly controlled, so tempered that at any minute, we should be able to quell it.
Rabbi Lamm also cites the practice of the Gastininer Rebbe, who made it a rule never to express his displeasure with anyone on the same day he was offended by that person. The next day he would say to the man: “I was displeased with you yesterday.” Again, anger is expressed and used for constructive purposes, but only when it is distanced from the boiling emotion that makes it destructive.
Nahmanides, the 13th century Bible commentator, wrote a letter to his son and asked him to read it weekly. The entire letter is about anger management. In it, Nahmanides mentions tone of voice as an important tool in self-control. “And let your words be said with fear and awe like a servant who stands before his master - and act with timidity before all men. And if a person calls you do not answer with a loud voice - just respond with calm as if you are standing before your mentor.”
When we’re angry we put ourselves – our judgments and feelings - above others. That superiority usually expresses itself in the voice. We talk louder; we bark at others. Nahmanides recommends that when we’re angry, we use a gentle and calm voice that reflects fear and awe, as if we are speaking to someone we highly respect. Not only are we then placing ourselves as equals to those who give us displeasure, we are humbling ourselves before others. Self-control expresses itself powerfully in our voice.
Nahmanides describes how liberating it is when we have true mastery over anger. "And when you free yourself from anger, the trait of humility will enter your heart - for this is the finest quality of all favorable traits." Anger snatches at our capacity for generosity. Humility gives us a greater capacity for love
Dr. Erica Brown is the Director of Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and Director of the Jewish Leadership Institute at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is also an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University, was a Jerusalem Fellow and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. Brown lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership, in addition to extensive writing in journals of education and Jewish studies. She has chapters in "Jewish Legal Writings by Women, Torah of the Mothers," and "Wisdom from All of My Teachers" and writes a weekly internet essay on topics of Jewish interest. Brown is the author of the book, "Inspired Leadership: A Jewish Perspective" and co-author of "The Case for Jewish Peoplehood." This article first appeared on the web site of The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.