Jonathan Muskat

The Good Way and the Better Way to Defeat Anger

A few weeks ago, I met someone who told me that he had an anger problem and he was working on controlling his anger. Now the Torah takes a strong stance against anger. As an example, even though the Rambam supports the “golden mean” philosophy, whereby we should develop habits of behavior according to the middle course between two extremes, this philosophy does not apply to anger. The Rambam writes that “anger is an extremely evil tendency, and it is proper for a man to remove himself from it to the other extreme. One should teach himself not to get angry, even over a matter which befits anger”. (Rambam, Hilchot De-ot, 2:3) The Rambam challenges us to become an extremist in the area of anger management. The reason is that when we are angry that we lose control. Anger drives out so many positive emotions in our lives – forgiveness, compassion, empathy and sensitivity.

That is why I was so heartened to hear that this person decided to work on his anger management. But the question is how do we do it? And here we have a choice to make. Do we change our behavior primarily by a “bein adam l’atzmo” (between man and himself) method or by a “bein adam la-chavero” (between man and his friend) method? I think that there is a profound difference between these two approaches in shaping and refining our midot.

One approach to changing our midot is viewing the exercise as one of “bein adam l’atzmo,” as an attempt to develop a virtuous personality. That is a laudable goal and when it comes to defeating anger, I would argue that the best strategy is being “mevater,” of learning how to happily give up on something that we want. Being “mevater” is the opposite of feeling entitled. Very often we get angry because we think that we are entitled to a certain honor or recognition, but if we try to develop a personality of being a “mevater,” then we come to realize that many things that upset us are, in reality, really silly and not worth our negative emotions. All we need to do is to stop, pause, reflect and then realize that it’s just not worth it to be upset.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was known as someone who excelled in this character trait. He had six children and he followed different customs at the weddings of different children. Some people have the practice that the father and mother walk their child to the chuppah, whereas others have the custom that the two fathers walk the groom and the two mothers walk the bride. Somebody observed that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky followed one custom at some of his children’s weddings and a different custom at the other weddings. When he was asked about the different customs that he observed for different children, he explained that at each wedding he agreed to follow the other family’s custom. He understood that this divergence of customs is simply not significant enough to warrant an argument, or any kind of tension between the families. Therefore, at each wedding, he asked the other family what their preference was, and he agreed to follow that custom.

When we engage in this mida of “vitur,” then we transform and refine our personality, but the truth is that we can do better than that. Because I have found that it is hard for us psychologically to constantly think that the other person is wrong and we will just give in. There are some truly altruistic and selfless people out there who can live a life of always giving in and putting the other person first. However, this mida is very hard to sustain. I have found that having this attitude can often create in people a sense of victimhood, that people who are always “mevater” may feel that other people around them are insensitive, inconsiderate, hypocritical, etc. I have found that it is very hard for many of us to sustain the mida of “vitur” without ultimately being resentful and angry at those around us who always get what they want from us.

That is why I feel that we must also work on defeating anger from a “bein adam la-chavero” perspective. What is a “bein adam la-chavero” perspective? It is not only about developing a virtuous personality, but it is an approach about how we relate to other people. How can we defeat anger from a “bein adam la-chavero” perspective?  The key is to  be “dan l’kaf zechut,” to learn judge others favorably. Practicing this mida includes trying really hard to understand the behavior of others in a positive light. Unfortunately, sometimes because of our binary thinking, we tend to assume the worst of others. Sometimes, because of our past interactions with others, we tend to think that people other than ourselves cannot change.

But imagine if we judged others in the most favorable light, then maybe we would not be as resentful and ultimately not as angry. Imagine if we stopped making so many negative moral evaluations of others. Imagine if we stopped saying that the other person is morally corrupt, and instead we simply said that his or her specific behavior was wrong. Imagine if we started to think more and more about context, like what may have caused him or her to act that way. Imagine if we would replace our anger at the other person with empathy for someone who does not see that what he or she is doing is wrong. Imagine if we were more positive about other people and we tried to look for the good and tried to find the redeeming qualities of others.

We should all strive to defeat anger and replace anger with happiness and positivity. Hopefully we will appreciate that the strategy to achieve this goal is not just in working on our own personality, but also in working on how we relate to others.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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