So, does Judaism, in fact, teach us that we ought to express our anger? That it is better for us to get it out, rather than repress it? Is Judaism “pro anger?” Not exactly.
In the “holiness code” of Leviticus 19, we are told, “you shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your fellow and not bear sin on his account.”
The ancient sages said, “Those who are angry — it is the same as if they worshiped idols (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 66b).”
The best known Jewish stories about anger revolve around the rabbinic sage Hillel, who was famously patient.
One man bet another that he could provoke Hillel to lose his temper. On Friday, before the Sabbath, as Hillel was inside washing his hair, the man came to his home and called out to ask him a question. Hillel dried off, robed, and went outside to see who was calling him. The man asked him a silly question: “Why do the Babylonians have round heads?” Hillel answered, “You have asked a great question. Because they lack skillful midwives.” When he had gone back to washing his hair, the man again interrupted his bath to ask him a different silly question. And a third time, he again waited just long enough until Hillel had gotten back in the bath before doing it yet again. Each time, Hillel calmly and patiently answered, finally sitting down and encouraging the man to ask whatever he needed.
When the man angrily told Hillel that his patience had caused him to lose a bet of 400 zuzes, Hillel replied, “Be careful of your moods. Hillel is worth it that you should lose 400 zuzes, and yet another 400 zuzes through him, yet Hillel shall not lose his temper (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).” (We just did this story in our daily Daf Yomi Shier)
Here, Hillel seems to be saying, “better you should lose 400 zuzes, or even twice that big amount,(if he won the bet he would have made twice the amount) than that I lose my temper (or you lose yours). Cultivating a patient disposition is much more important than making money.”
Certainly, all human beings experience anger. We could say that our goal is to be like Hillel, possessing great patience. It is important to note that Hillel genuinely was not angry, which is very different from feeling anger but suppressing it (a bad idea). How did Hillel manage to avoid becoming angry? He realized he had the freedom to see the situation in various ways. He could be annoyed at the provocations (which, it turned out, were intentional provocations) or he could see the positive in the situation: how great it was that here was a man seeking knowledge.
So, like Hillel, we can choose to reframe our experiences as positively as possible (albeit, without being stupid and putting ourselves in danger). We can give every person the benefit of the doubt.
But also, when we do experience anger (and there are occasions when we are justified in doing so-very few let me add), we should, indeed, express it. “You shall surely rebuke your fellow and not bear sin on his account.”
Often, anger builds because we do not immediately address the problem. What might have been a very minor issue builds until someone explodes in rage and acts inappropriately.
Rather than come at the other person to tell her what she is doing wrong, we should present the problem we are experiencing. Maybe she is right, and I am wrong.
Using “I” statements is a good rule of thumb. “I feel” is better than “you should.” “Excuse me, I can’t hear the rabbi’s sermon” is better than, “be quiet!” But “be quiet!” is certainly better than saying nothing, seething with anger, and then committing the sin of Lashon hora (gossip) by telling someone else at kiddush how inconsiderate so-and-so is for talking during the whole service and driving you crazy.
Almost all of us become angry much more frequently than is necessary. But even the most patient among us will nonetheless become angry sometimes.
People do unjust things, people make mistakes, sometimes people intentionally harm others and deserve our anger.
The best solution is to try to address the situation that makes us angry as quickly and as constructively as possible — and then let go of it. If you hold on to the coal of anger, the hand that gets burned will be your own.
Now a little story to make the point:
A Good Clean Lesson
Rabbi Epstein received a call from a wealthy businessman who was interested in exploring Judaism, but had many questions. He asked if Rabbi Epstein could pay him a visit at the office, which he obliged.
The next day, Rabbi Epstein pulled up to an enormous manufacturing facility which produced soaps and other household cleaners. The company president, Aaron Miller was there to greet him.
“Thank you for coming rabbi,” Mr. Miller said. “Let’s go for a walk, shall we?”
After some small talk Mr. Miller said, “Rabbi, please help me answer this question that I’ve been thinking about: what good is religion, really? Look at all the trouble and misery in the world! Even after thousands of years of religions teaching about goodness and truth and love and peace, there’s still war and deceit and so many terrible things. If Judaism is true, why should this be?”
Rabbi Epstein just stroked his beard in thought.
They continued walking until he noticed a child playing in the gutter. Rabbi Epstein said, “Look at that child. You say that soap makes people clean, but see the dirt on that youngster. Of what good is soap? With all the soap in the world, over all these years, the child is still filthy. I wonder how effective soap is, after all!”
Mr. Miller, president of a soap company protested, “But Rabbi, soap can’t do any good unless it is used!”
“Exactly,” replied the Rabbi. “Exactly.”