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Friday Night Sermon: Anger 03/29/2019

This week’s portion of the Torah is “Shemini”. In this portion, there is a section, quite brief, that addresses an interesting interaction between Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest prophet, and Aaron, the newly ordained head priest. Aaron and his two younger sons were offering sacrifices as part of their duties. Since they were “onen”, that is, in mourning for the death of the two older sons who had been punished for transgressing the sanctity of the Aron HaKodesh, they had certain restriction regarding partaking of the meal of the sacrifice.

Moses became angry and chastised Aaron for acting improperly in conducting the ritual. Aaron very calmly explained his rationale. Moses thought about it and acknowledged that Aaron was correct. While this is the first time in the Torah that interactions resembled Talmud and Oral Law there is also another, perhaps more secular, lesson in this interaction.

Moshe Rabbeinu became angry and reacted emotionally. This prevented him from looking at the situation and seeing how all the parts fit. He erred in his response. Our greatest prophet was human and not immune to the frailties of his passions, just like the rest of us “Am Ha’aretz” (common folks).

King Solomon, in Proverbs, wrote, “Who is mighty? He who contains his passions.” The Rabbis throughout our history have expanded this simple piece of advice and admonished people from reacting blindly to their passions. They have said numerous times that in succumbing to anger we lose our ability to reason and thus make a tentative situation worse.

What is anger? One may say that it goes all the way to our ancestors who lived very primitively without any comforts. They lived, most of the time, day-to-day, catching their food and fending off hostile elements. Their protection was the flight-or-fight instinct. Their passions gave them an adrenaline boost that heightened their reactions and gave them an advantage to succeed in their survival.

Years ago, I was working in mental health, working in a psychiatric hospital. I was an assistant charge nurse on a dual-diagnosis adolescent unit that treated teenagers for both behavior and chemical addiction issues. At that time, the hospital was going through a review by a regulatory organization and it was deemed that our unit was discriminating by only treating teens with addiction issues. In order to comply, then, we decided to admit someone who was not chemically addicted in order to be all-inclusive.

Part of the treatment paradigm was having the teenagers use the 12-step process. The 12-step process was originally designed for alcoholics and has been widely applied to other forms of addiction. We looked for a way to include this kid in the model. I sat down with the kid and explained the treatment process to him and discussed how to include him in the milieu. I asked him what he thought his biggest issue was and he replied that it was anger. We decided that we would use the 12-step model with him focusing on anger as his addiction.

It was amazing that as his recovery progressed, how much this 12-step model application helped him. It was interesting how approaching the issue of anger as an addiction was so fitting. It was a success.

In short, anger is a drug. It empowers us, gives us strength, helps us take on challenges in order to survive. It is a sort of superpower. Unfortunately, in this day and age, this vestige is usually a hindrance rather than an advantage.

Many of us call a help desk to resolve an issue for some service. We are so frustrated by the inconvenience that we are angry. The rep gets on the phone, asks what the problem is and how they can help, and what do we do? We unload on them in a horrible way. This upsets the help desk person and after minutes of apologies, you get down to the actual problem solving.

In the end, the customer service rep has been as polite as they can be, they’ve resolved the problem one way or another and how do we feel? Ashamed. We’ve just upset a totally innocent person who was at no fault for the interruption in service yet did their best and resolved the issue for us. So we muster up a very awkward and embarrassed apology and promise ourselves we won’t do this again. And the next time? Yup, right back to allowing our passions to rule.

There is an adage about counting to three before we lose it. It’s really very good advice and we should follow it. Moses didn’t count to three, or in his case “sholosh”, and as the sages say, he erred. Perhaps that’s why this episode is in the Torah. It may not be only there to demonstrate the need for critical thought in resolving issues of halachah, but also to calm down before approaching a problem.

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