Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have an anger problem that is affecting my home, office and relationships with friends. Until recently, I blamed it on others, but now I realize it’s me. Before getting involved with expensive counseling, I would like to know if anger is discussed in Jewish sources, and if I could or should attempt to help myself by studying them. Your input would be most appreciated.
You have already taken a major step by recognizing your anger problem and shifting the blame from others onto yourself. Although I don’t know you and therefore can’t really advise you, it would certainly be beneficial to work on this with the material available in Torah sources that will help you see things from a very different, elevated vantage point and help you recognize and internalize the destructive power in anger and the benefits of a joyous, accepting life.
I would recommend you consider doing this work alongside counseling or therapy, as, in many situations, the Torah study will augment the therapy you need, not take the place of it — at least in the beginning stages or as recommended by the therapist.
Numerous Torah sources teach us the negative affects of anger. Let us examine two of them that were at crossroads of ancient Jewish history.
Jacob, in his final, parting words to his beloved sons on his deathbed, strongly criticized Reuven, his firstborn, for the anger he expressed by moving his father’s bed after the death of his mother. He then cursed the anger of his sons Shimon and Levi — which had led them to destroy a city — adding that he wants no part in their anger; their anger will cause them to be split apart and not live with stability. (Genesis 49:3-7)
At the moment of truth, Jacob’s final farewell, he chose to focus on misplaced anger among his sons, the tribes of Israel, to ensure they focus on correcting that anger for the sake of future generations.
A leader as great as Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel because he expressed anger, leading him to strike the rock rather than speaking to it as commanded (Numbers 20:7-13). That anger caused Moses an insurmountable loss, the inability to enter the land he so loved and longed for and to continue to lead the Jewish people into their final state.
Maimonides codifies the Torah outlook on anger (“Yad Hachazakah,” Hilchos Deos 2:3). After his well-known treatise on character traits, where Maimonides shows how one should act within the “middle of the road” and not go to extremes, he writes the following (loosely translated by this author from the Hebrew original):
“There are some character traits which one should not conduct himself along the ’middle of the road,’ but should, rather, go to the extreme.” Now, he turns from haughtiness to anger. ”Similarly, anger is an excedingly negative character trait and it is befitting that one should conduct himelf in the extreme with regard to negating the trait of anger. One should train himself not to become angry even with regard to those matters befitting of anger. Similarly, if one wants to cast fear among his children and the members of his household or upon the congregation if he is their leader, and wants to express anger to bring them back to the good, he should express himself to them as if he is angry in order to affect them, but he should internally be calm and not truly be internally angry, he should only appear that way.”
Maimonides concludes, “Our early sages declared that anyone who is angry is tantamount to having worshipped idols. They said further, anyone who is angry, if he is a wise man his wisdom will escape him. If he is a prophet, his prophecy will be removed from him. Those who live in anger, their lives are not lives. Therefore our early sages commanded us to distance ourselves from anger until we don’t even feel those things which would normally cause one to be angry. This is the choice path. The way of the righteous is to accept shame and not be ashamed, hear their insults and not answer back, they perform all they do with love and accept difficulties with joy. Upon them the Torah writes that (in the future time of reward), those beloved by God will shine like the sun in all its power.”
Maimonides adds that there are, however, unique times when it is warranted to truly be angry, such as when dealing with those who are openly desecrating the name of God (See Hilchos Deos 1:4 and Lechem Mishneh loc cit). Such situations are rare in everyday life, taking us back to the main ruling to stay as far as possible from anger.
Anger, as a God-given emotion, cannot be and is not inherently evil, but must be studied and worked upon to be used in proper measure. One great rabbi said that “anger is like salt — in small amounts it enhances; too much can spoil.”
Part of the work we must invest in is to know when that “small amount” is in place, such as inspiring one to correct a lack of justice or a falsehood in the world, and when to refrain from anger altogether.
Even very great people need to work on conquering anger. The towering Torah figure in America of the past generation, Rav Moshe Feinstein ob”m, was extremely mild-mannered. In the most tense and provocative situations, he would not show a trace of anger. When questioned about this trait, he once remarked, “Do you think I was always like this? By nature, I have a fierce temper, but I have worked to overcome it.”
The same applied to my mentor, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach ob”m, who was renowned for his jovial spirit, joy and perpetual smile. He once remarked that he was born with a terrible temper, and spent most of his life taming it.
It will be a real challenge for you to attempt to study the subject of anger from direct Torah sources, especially as most of these sources are in Hebrew, and furthermore need to be pieced together to form a worldview and a plan of action.
I will, therefore, make a suggestion. There is a tremendous book called Anger: The Inner Teacher by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. This wonderful book develops a nine-step methodical approach to conquering anger. It is based upon the author’s vast Torah knowledge and understanding of human nature which has allowed him to present a down-to-earth approach to scaling the heights of character and spirit. Filled with insights, anecdotes and examples, this is a precious source of self-improvement utilizing the timeless wisdom of Torah.
Try reading through this book and working on its methods to improve your situation for a few months. Hopefully, you will save yourself the expense of extended, long-term counseling, become happier and enriched by the treasures of our Torah for many years to come. Perhaps do this in conjunction with discussions with a rabbi to monitor your progress. You will always have time to return to professional counseling if, at some point, you feel you still need more.
Dear Rabbi Fried,