Saturday, November 13, 2010

Parsha Vayetze: Sometimes It's OK to Be Angry

Anger manifests itself in many forms. In the international realm, we see it in the form of wars, terrorism, and acts of genocide. On a domestic level, we see such examples as road rage and a political discourse that has become so polarized and uncouth that a civil discussion on politics is all but non-existent. Even in American homes, spouses argue with on another and domestic abuse is a much more common occurrence than we would like. Anger, whether we like it or not, is a human emotion that is very much a part of human nature.

This does not mean, however, we should have the hedonistic response of "it's natural to be angry, therefore I'm just going to accept it." Judaism doesn't have anything positive to say about anger. Anger is what caused Cain to kill Abel. Anger is what drove Simeon and Levi to kill all the males in the town of Shechem (Genesis 34:25-26) after their townsmen raped their sister Dinah. Nedarim 22b says that G-d is of no consequence to a man who is angry. The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) even goes as far to say that anger is a form of idol worship. Why would that be? Idolatry, in its simplest form, is the worship of anything that is not G-d. It is not limited to statues. Money for its own sake is a form of idolatry.

But for the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the attribute of arrogance as a source of anger. Alan Morinis had a great way of defining arrogance. Arrogance is nothing more than a twisted manifestation of a lack of self-esteem. One who is arrogant craves attention and approval for others. Without their praise, they are worthless. Anger not only reveals dependency, but an instance of lashing out becomes a defense mechanism. It drives you into a deeper self-obsession which ultimately blinds you from the ramifications of your actions. In anger, everything is about you. There is no one else. This is why Judaism has an overall negative attitude towards it, and this is why the Talmud (Nedarim 22a) says that the angry person is overcome by all forms of hell.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and it clearly can have adverse effects. But are we supposed to go as far as say that we are never to be angry or that we never have the right to be angry?

Let's take a look at Jacob in this week's Torah portion. Jacob takes a liking to Rachel. Laban, Rachel's father, promises him Rachel's hand in marriage after working for him for seven years (Genesis 29:18). Seven years later, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel's older and much less redeeming sister (ibid 25-26). In order to marry Rachel, Jacob was forced to work yet another seven years for Laban (ibid 27). On top of it, Jacob works for another six years after that (31:41), even though Laban lowered his wages ten times (ibid 42).

So let's put ourselves into Jacob's shoes for a moment. Your employer, who happens to be your [future] father-in-law, makes you work seven years to marry the woman you love. He pulls off history's first bait-and-switch by giving you an uglier, less redeeming wife, and tells you that you have to work yet another seven years just to get what he had initially promised in the first place. After that, you miraculously have the patience to work for the man for another six years after all of that. He keeps on lowering your wages, and if that weren't enough, he never thanks you for the work you have done. If you were Jacob at the point where he is admonishing Laban, do you honestly think you would be as calm and serene?

What I find most amazing about the passage is Jacob's reaction to his situation. Did Jacob have the right to be angry? You bet he did! Notice how he didn't go out of control. He didn't kill or assault Laban. He didn't even steal his goods. He just addresses his grievances in a rebuking manner.

What we can learn here is the difference between moral outrage (i.e., controlled anger) and unadulterated rage (i.e., uncontrolled anger). Jacob had every justification to be agitated and miffed. He presented his frustration in a controlled, thought-out manner. By keeping an inner calm with the tumultuous exterior, he didn't let his emotions get the better of him. And in spite of his justification, Jacob did everything he could to rectify the animosity between himself and Laban (ibid 44). Rabbi Ilai was correct to say (Eruvin 65b) that the ability to control one's anger says a lot about a man. Jacob's ability to control his anger is a clear example of why he is worthy of being one of the Patriarchs.

This blog entry was based on the lay-sermon I gave on Saturday, November 12, 2010.

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