What is Anger For?

There are three (types) of people the Holy One loves: One who does not get angry. One who does not get drunk. One who does not stand on ceremony.

Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 113b

As a jeans and a ponytail kind of gal myself, I relate to not standing on ceremony. And in a religion that does stresses moderation in all aspects of life, the censure of drinking to excess with its unpredictable results makes sense. But I wonder about anger.

Anger is a tricky thing. In children anger is often all-consuming; the frustration at being denied an ice cream leading to a full-blown meltdown in the supermarket. And while most of us learn to moderate the outbursts as we age, anger and its potential never disappear from our lives.

The destructive potential of anger is familiar to all of us. Extremes like road rage to domestic abuse and even the subtler outbursts of anger can cause great damage. The great Sephardic rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam) believed in the power of the intellect over all, suggested that we banish anger to such a degree from our lives that even when chastise others we only feign anger and operate only from a place of love. As any parent or manager knows, the best of our parenting/managing comes not from anger but from providing guidance to move forward, even when we are providing feedback on problematic behavior or performance.

But within Judaism, there is also an important place, even an honored place, for the evil inclination-the source of bad and difficult behavior — including anger. There is a ancient story in which the rabbis captured and imprisoned the yetzer harah, the evil inclination with the hope of making the world a better place. After three days they noticed that the hens stopped laying eggs. They understood that without the evil inclination the rooster had stopped coming to the hens and the eggs had stopped coming. Faulty though the scientific reasoning of this story might be (hens apparently can lay eggs without roosters) the point holds. To paraphrase another rabbinic piece of wisdom, without the evil inclination, no person would build a house, take a partner or have children. In other words the impulse to ‘do evil’ is somewhat of a misnomer, as the yetzer harah if channeled correctly can be a force for a great deal of good.

As we prepare for the High Holidays this year, I have been thinking about anger. Not only do we pray for forgiveness for transgressions of the yetzer harah and many others such as violence or insolence to parents and teachers are similarly connected to anger. Should we attempt, as the Rambam suggested, to try and banish it entirely from our lives or can we find ways to channel it productively?

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The shadow of the Holocaust looms large in my family. And anger, towards God and the perpetrators, was an important theme in my childhood home and experience. I grew to understand the anger on many levels. God had not saved my family, or millions of others who were historically observant and God-fearing. For some faith disappeared, for others there was a deep sense of betrayal. Moreover, faith in God had provided some a false sense of comfort and hope that replaced action as for some in my family leaving might have been an option. Remaining angry at God, a connection with the divine was maintained even as the pain and sense of betrayal endured. Being angry at God meant looking for salvation elsewhere; building a strong Israel for example. Similarly being angry at the perpetrators strengthened a commitment to Zionism. I – and all of the Jewish people – are the beneficiaries of this anger, anger that was channeled into productive and constructive action.

READ: How the Holocaust Challenged Faith 

I have no question that God’s love can and does abide the anger that we humans experience towards the source of life. I worry not at all what that anger does to God.

And yet, in my own life, I came to recognize that anger as destructive as well. It kept me from feeling the presence of God in my life. Anger stood in the way of my being able to build a constructive relationship with God. It was only in letting go of my anger, through difficult theological work and consideration, that I was able to find a connection with the divine that fulfilled my spiritual needs.

Some, though not all anger, is as monumental as the anger that emerged from the Holocaust. Most anger exists on a smaller scale. Sometimes anger is justified and others times not. But in all its forms, anger is an expression of our evil inclination and as such it has great destructive potential. Still it also has the potential for good. Anger can drive us to push for change, to protect ourselves and our communities. The challenge, as with any other expression of the yetzer harah is to figure out how to channel the impulse of anger.

Our tradition offers no formula for navigating our anger but these are some of the question I ask myself:

  • Is my anger hurting me?
  • Is my anger hurting others?
  • Is my anger justified or is it really misplaced, the result of not dealing with other real issues or concerns?
  • Is my anger protecting me or others from real (not imaginary) harm?
  • Is my anger being expressed in reasonable and productive ways?

And if we return to the wisdom with which this piece opened, it is easy to read a place for righteous anger or productive anger. For while the Talmud in this case tells us not to get drunk, there are occasion, such as Purim when drinking to excess is not just allowed but encouraged. At the proper time and place and with the proper intention, we too can find ways to make anger work to make it a better New Year.

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