“Who is strong? He (she) who controls their passions” so said King Solomon is Proverbs (Chapter 16, verse 32). Throughout the ages, the sages have warned us to control our passions. That’s why, after all, we have commandments. Just wear the fringes, obey the commandments, and you’re fine, right?
Probably the strongest “passion” is anger. Anger is a drug. It gives you, sometimes, superhuman strength and endurance. It gives you courage when you are faced with a daunting situation. Anger scares the people who aren’t angry and motivates them to retreat rather than face your venom. It’s the ultimate fight when you can’t flight. And it’s quite the high, isn’t it?
But like all drugs, there is a downside. It can become addicting and used when it’s not needed. Years ago when I worked in mental health, I spent a year working in an adolescent dual diagnosis unit. This was specifically for teenagers who not only had behavior problems, but also problems with chemical dependency. At that time, the facility was undergoing evaluation to be part of the JCAAH which would allow us more latitude in billing insurance. Part of that process involved not discriminating specific patient populations in our units. We took in a young kid who was thirteen years old and had never seen a drug, let alone used. The problem became coordinating his treatment with the rest of the kids so he could participate in groups.
The treatment team considered how to best apply his issues to the 12-step program, one of the main modalities. I asked him what issue he thought he might be so caught up in that it served as an addiction. He said he had a problem with anger. We had him work the 12-step process using anger. It was amazing how well that process worked.
In this week’s Torah portion, the children of Israel are out in the wilderness and Aaron—everybody’s favorite high priest—dies. There is now no water. G-d tells Moses to talk to the rock and water will be plentiful. Moses loses it; perhaps all the whining and sniveling got to him. He tells the “rebels” to behold water and strikes the rock. Water pours forth, but G-d tells him that because he didn’t sanctify His name in front of the congregation, he will not go into the promised land.
The moral of the story: anger has its consequences. In the wrong application, it will do more harm than good. Moses did not control his passions.
Many of us don’t. Our cable is out, and we spend however many minutes sitting on the phone waiting for that hapless customer service person to be our scapegoat. We are on the road in rush hour and protected by a covering of armor we will display obscene gestures at nameless strangers who commit the horrible offense of pulling in front of us.
Moses was supposed to know better. He was a prophet’s prophet. Other prophets have glimpses of the ultimate; he had a front row seat to Hashem. That connection must have given him insight into the structure of Reality, and yet in one unfortunate moment, he threw it all away. Such is the danger of anger. In fact, “anger” is “danger” without the “d”.
Like any drug, it gives you a marvelous high and a horrible comedown. The morning after is not unlike any hangover. And, like drugs, we seem to regret what we did and how we acted while under the influence.
The sages recognized this. They looked at Moses’ behavior and must have thought, hmmm, if he succumbed, we’re doomed! To moderate our most violent emotion, they ended our thrice daily “tefillah”, or Amidah, with “Oh L-rd, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood”. We know what we can say while in the throes.
G-d recognized this as well. One of our commandments is to not take vengeance. Easier said than done.
Consider that anger is a lot like pain; it’s telling us that there’s something amiss. What gets you angry? Certainly, some of the little annoyances we face each day, like when the car won’t start or when we get to the store and find they’re out of our favorite whatever, or our electric bill is higher than we thought. Those things typically come and go.
But maybe there are things we face in our daily lives that seem to keep coming up. Maybe our job or associates or acquaintances are too much for us to handle and we wish they’d go away. Sometimes it seems like we face the same conflicts and/or situations over and over. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Like pain, anger is a warning. It’s telling us that we need to remove the offending circumstance. We need to look deep into ourselves and see what need we have that is not being fulfilled, and what change do we need to make to fulfill it. And part of that is thinking out of the box—the box we’ve locked ourselves into in which we play out the same scenarios over and over.