Daniel Coleman
Daniel Coleman
Contrarian and creative investor, inventor, and career coach

Love and holy anger at the Seder

Ragerage against the dying of the light!   (Dylan Thomas)

This year, more than ever before, we may have felt very distant from others and from G-d. When the Torah describes the final plague in Egypt, “there was no house where none had died” [1] , there are few of us that this does not resonate with today. Yet, underpinning the Haggadah and its accouterments is reconciliation with — and yearning for – G-d.  Seder provides an opportunity to recall and retell our origin story. On the anniversary of our elopement with G-d into the desert, we share memories of how we first met and fell in love and how, despite the attractions of Egypt, our love for each other held firm. We recreate the symbols that surrounded us in the early period of our relationship with the goal of recapturing the love and “kindness of our youth.” [2]  As the evening progresses and our senses are enlivened, other holy emotions like sadness and anger are also welcomed to the table.

After drinking our third glass of wine we pour a cup for Elijah, and proceed to demand that G-d to do some pouring of a different kind: Shefoch chamatcha el hagoyim: “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know You…Pour out your fury on them…Pursue them in rage & destroy them from under the heavens of the L-rd.”  Like veterans re-experiencing the trauma of war, on Seder night our experience of revisiting our darkest places and times (both historical and current) has the potential for powerful emotional expression. The Haggadah incorporates symbols and readings that facilitate the expression of sorrow and grief [3], and in this section of the Seder, we allow for the emotion of rage.

The TaNaCh refers to anger in its various forms and expressions over 500 times [4], significantly more than any other emotion.  Jacob is angry with his wife Rachel; Jonah is angry with G-d; Moses is angry with the people; the people are angry with Moses; Moses is angry with his nephews; Pharaoh is angry with his servants; G-d is angry with Moses; G-d is angry with Miriam and Aaron; G-d is angry with the people; Saul is angry with his son Jonathan; Jeremiah is angry with G-d; Habbakuk is angry with G-d, etc., etc.

More important than simply noting the frequency with which a concept arises, the Kabbalists teach us to examine the first occurrence of the concept or emotion in the Bible. This provides a lens through which to understand and gain perspective on all future Biblical references to it, and is instructive for our own lives.

Anger first appears in the story of Cain and Abel.[5] Cain becomes “exceedingly angry” when Abel’s offering is found more acceptable than his. G-d asks him “why are you angry…” and, (seemingly without waiting for a response,) proceeds to tell Cain that he still has an opportunity to harness his anger, perhaps even channel it to constructive use. Cain is apparently unable to rise to G-d’s challenge to identify and take control over his anger. Rather, consumed by his anger, he kills Abel.

G-d and our Biblical ancestors appear unafraid to publicly demonstrate their anger, perhaps making them more relatable to later generations. Anger — be it G-d’s or ours – seems to be an inevitable part of life. Unless we believe that we are greater than our Creator, anger would seem to be something that we should welcome and cultivate, rather than attempt to eradicate through piety or training of the mind.

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf betrayal, G-d self-describes as “slow to anger” [6] — not devoid of anger! As a human being charged with the responsibility of emulating G-d in my life, [7] I have “permission” — perhaps even a mitzvah or “obligation” — to express anger at injustice.  This attribute (and the passage in general) directs us to acknowledge our anger, just as G-d does. G-d doesn’t apologize or feel shame for having and expressing this emotion. From these teachings, we can infer that G-d is challenging each of us to “own” our anger and to take responsibility for it along with our other emotions; to confront our anger rather than avoid it.

With this in mind, we can reframe the question “Why are you angry?” as: “OK, you’re angry. Now, what are you going to do with that anger?” Will it be left unchecked, or can it be mastered just as we are enjoined to master every other object and emotion that G-d puts into our world? [8] Maybe we can ultimately learn to emulate Moses who selflessly employed his anger in the service of G-d,[9] or Pinchas who used his anger to defend G-d’s honor and stop a plague.[10]

It is our responsibility to cultivate a thought-out response that emulates G-d’s attribute and directive of being “slow to anger.” Open discussion, recognition, and validation of the emotion, rather than avoidance, allows the parties involved to healthily express anger along the pathway to reconciliation.

At Seder, we create a safe space for a wide range of emotions. May the process of emotional and spiritual growth through the Seder’s 15 steps bring us healing and wholeness, and may the plague of death be rapidly eradicated from our lives.

[1] Exodus 12:30

[2] Jeremiah 2:2

[3] Examples include: the breaking/broken matzah & subsequent search for wholeness; the egg symbolizing fertility, death, & the circle of life; maror representing the bitterness in our life (combined with our quest to palliate it with charoses); saltwater representing our tears, etc.

[4] 5 Hebrew words are used to convey anger in the Bible: af 200+ references, chaimah 125, charah 93, ketzef 62, kaas 75.

[5] Genesis 4:3

[6] Exodus 34:6

[7] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 133b, expounding the imperative of Imitatio Dei found in Deuteronomy 10:12 & 28:9

[8] Genesis 1:28

[9] Exodus 32:19

[10] Numbers 25:11

About the Author
A contrarian investor, career coach, and sought after speaker, Daniel Coleman has an MBA, several patents, and a unicycle. He is passionate about guiding students and (aspiring) professionals at each stage in their career from discerning their college and career of choice to learning how to pivot and negotiate their worth.  You can reach him at daniel . coleman @ yu.edu.
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