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Yom Kippur 5782: Anger

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

In the Babylonian Talmud,[1] we read a story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Elazar, who had fled from the Roman government. They went and hid in a cave. A carob tree sprouted to provide them with food, and a spring appeared to provide them with water. With their basic needs met, they focused only on the most important thing. They buried themselves up to their necks in sand and studied all day, taking breaks only to pray. They lived like this for 12 years, at which point the prophet Elijah appeared and told them they were safe to leave the cave.

They emerged and saw people plowing fields. Shimon couldn’t believe it. Instead of worrying about acts of holiness and sanctification, these people are busying themselves with mundane tasks? He and his son were angry. Really angry. Every place their gaze landed immediately burst into flame and burned.

A voice then came from heaven and said, “Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” So they did, and stayed for another 12 months, at which point the voice called them out of the cave again. This time, Elazar remained angry and burned all that he saw, but his father’s gaze healed whatever the son’s stare ignited.

They saw an old man holding two myrtle branches. They asked him, “Why do you need these?” “For Shabbat,” he said. This was a new ritual to them. It came into being while they were in the cave. But they understood that the people did care about God’s commandments, just differently than they did. Elazar was satisfied. The flames stopped. Shimon and his son were able to exist in the world without destroying it.

Like Shimon and Elazar, a lot of us right now are angry. Really angry.

People who are vaccinated and wear masks are angry at the people who could be but have chosen not to be vaccinated and at the people who are not wearing masks. On the flip side, people who have chosen not to receive the COVID vaccine are angry at how they are being characterized, judged, shunned, and blamed.

We are angry about those who ignore the weather extremes and say climate change isn’t real. We are angry at politicians, law enforcement, the people who pass by us too closely, and our neighbors. Anger is on the rise in our homes, in our intimate relations, and between parents and children.

My colleague Rabbi Beth Klafter wrote a few years ago in a High Holy Day sermon:

I am very angry lately:

angry about the rampant injustices.

about those who speak with falsehoods; 

about the lack of reverence for every human life. 

I am angry at the absurdity of current discourse; 

angry because my rights are being threatened; 

angry because I feel overwhelmed and powerless. 

I am angry 

about feeling so angry. 

In Torah, we read: 

Yes, a fire has blazed from My anger, it will burn right down to the depths of Sheol; it will devour the earth and all its produce, it will set fire to the footings of the mountains.[2] The “My” in this case is God. When God is angry, literally, God’s “nose is on fire.”

Many passages elsewhere portray God having a nose from within which emanates fire. We see this again in the Psalms: “Smoke went up from [God’s] nose and devouring fire from [God’s] mouth glowing coals flamed forth from [God].”[3]

We are told repeatedly that we have been created in God’s image. So, I guess, if God can get angry, so can we. But we are not God, so our anger will come out a bit differently than God’s. Shimon and Elazar sent forth fire from their eyes, not from their noses. I doubt any of us have laser beam eyes or flaming noses. Our fires tend to emerge from our mouths, in our body language, and when feeling out of control, perhaps with our hands and feet like a toddler having a tantrum.

Expressing anger can be both healthy and unhealthy. A friend of mine’s father told her as she was growing up, “Don’t get angry.” As an adult, she has trouble expressing anger and fears any time another person is angry at her that their friendship will come to a halting end.

Therapists often say that anger is a mask emotion – they ask us to delve more deeply to try and figure out what’s really going on. Perhaps we are frightened or feeling shame. In that case, they suggest, anger helped us to get to the real emotion and that’s where the work needs to take place.

The Talmud teaches that “If one tears his garments in anger, or breaks his vessels in anger, or scatters his money in anger, he should be in your eyes as one who serves idols.”[4] Anger is equated with idol worship. The Mussar tradition of Jewish ethical living teaches that “when a person loses her temper, she becomes overwhelmed and overpowered by ... anger … yield[ing] to this raging … [and] in effect “serving” the power of anger.

By letting anger domineer and control [the self], the angry person supplants and negates the governing role of God. More simply, you can have only one god on the altar. If it’s anger, it’s not God.”[5]

But sometimes, we are just. Simply. Angry.

The Talmud offers another teaching:[6] “Rabbi Ilai said, ‘In three matters a person’s true character is ascertained: in his cup, in his pocket, and in his anger.’” His cup means by his behavior when he drinks, his pocket means by his generosity, and his anger means his temperament.

Notice that Rabbi Ilai is not judging a person, but merely stating, quite to the opposite of the therapists who believe that anger masks other emotions, that anger is the key emotion to judging someone.

So what are we to do with our anger? Rabbi Klafter reminds us in her sermon that:

Anger is a ‘primal force’ in our souls and in the universe. Feeling outraged about a situation in the world is our moral compass alerting us that something is off course. It is our ethical core waking us up – like the sound of the shofar – reminding us to pay attention; to do what we can to repair and make things right. This type of rage is sometimes called, ‘righteous indignation,” being indignant about the lack of righteousness surrounding us.”

I imagine that for most of you, the phrase “righteous indignation” is not new. Throughout the Torah, we see people acting out of anger and being rewarded or punished for doing so based on the righteousness of that anger. Abraham argues with God to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – he’s rewarded.

Moses argues with God to save the people after the Golden Calf, after checking out the Promised Land and being too scared to go, and after oh so many other times – he’s rewarded. Korach revolts against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership for his own ego gratification – he’s punished. Miriam speaks in anger when her brother Moses marries for a second time … for no apparent reason other than gossip, according to the Rabbis – she’s punished.

Righteous indignation is by no means limited to the Torah. Righteous indignation motivated Rosa Parks to move to the front of the bus and Martin Luther King to march. Righteous indignation called to Cesar Chavez to organize farm workers in California. Righteous indignation spurred Ruth Bader Ginsberg to work initially on behalf of women and later for all disenfranchised people.

That same righteous indignation has motivated so many of you to do the work you do on behalf of People of Color, Native Americans, immigrants, women, LGBTQ folk, the poor, the homeless, and so many more, just as Torah instructs us concerning the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – the most vulnerable in our world. You care about the climate and the planet and its future. So go out and march and demonstrate, raise money, and do all you can to channel your anger into something that will improve the world.

The anger of activism offers us what is sometimes called a “cooler option” than the heat of God or Shimon. Author Mary Beth Rogers describes it for us. “‘I am ... angry, but I’m learning to use my anger.’ For her, that meant learning how to turn her hot anger down a notch or two and make it cold, controlled, and careful.”[7]

Cold anger “is born of significant grief with the purpose of setting things right,” writes Rabbi David Jaffee. Cold anger “ generative and purposeful.” Cold anger, however, means taking the long range. It means being ever patient that your careful, cold anger activism now will somehow tip the scales of justice some day.

But dealing with your anger through activism is not my core message to you. Because we are so tired. Given the option between changing the world and sitting in a comfortable chair, right now, most of us would choose the latter. Most of us want the world to change for the better, but we are drained so deeply that our wells are too dry to turn us into the changemakers.

So let’s look at a second option for our anger: compassion. Again, we can turn to Torah and God to learn about a compassionate response to anger. After the Golden Calf incident, as Moses is on the mountain trying to control God’s wrath, God speaks the very words uttered in our High Holy Day liturgy:

יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת

Adonai, Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.[8]

Rather than being angry at the people whose position on the vaccine and masking is so different from yours, ask yourself if you can act from a place of compassion. On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, Morissa Sobelson Henn, in her d’var torah, taught us about acting from the place of empathy, a great Jewish value she learned as a child here at TBJ.

She shared with us her work in Utah with the gun community, getting to know people and their humanity, seeking a common ground for which they could work together to reduce the number of deaths by suicide by people with access to firearms. Empathy was the key to the success of her project. She was hundreds of miles from any Jewish community and believes that she may have been the first Jew many of her collaborators had met. And after the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, she received many expressions of condolence from people whose lives could not have been more different from her own. Because they saw her humanity as she had affirmed theirs.

But maybe your compassion goes only so far, as infection rates rise, people are dying, hospital beds in various parts of the country are in short supply, and the impact on our lives is still so overwhelming.

So let me suggest a third possible response to your anger: self-compassion. Stop beating yourself up because you are angry. You have every right to be. Seek the comfort you need and deserve. And then open your own heart to allow anger and self-compassion to live side by side.

Of the many times that Moses found himself in the presence of God, perhaps the most powerful moment was the simplest: standing before a bush. Moses noticed it was on fire, but it was not being consumed. God had every right to be angry at Pharoah and the Egyptians for the enslavement of the Israelites but refused to let that anger burn Godself up.

That is our goal. Perhaps the very nature of anger is that in the glowing embers of its fire, the warmth of compassion, of holiness, resides.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will for us. Shanah tovah.


[1]Shabbat 33b

[2]Deuteronomy 32: 22

[3]Psalm 18:9

[4]Rabbi David Jaffe, Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Path for Personal and Social Change, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 105.

[5] Alan Morinis, The Mussar Institute, Ka’as/Anger Curriculum.

[6]Eruvin 65b

[7]Excerpted from Sermon by Rabbi Dusty Klass, Yom Kippur 5775; Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics, by Mary Beth Rodges.

[8]Exodus 34:6

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784