In a powerful condemnation of temper, our sages proclaimed the sin of anger tantamount to that of idol worship. Now, anger is a caustic social malaise. Most crime and domestic violence result from anger. There is no question that we take leave of our senses in fits of temper and do stupid things. But does it rise to the level of idolatry?
Let’s use Pharaohs’s initial response to Moses’ demand that he set the Hebrews free as a springboard for discussion.
Pharaoh flew into a rage. He made a quick analysis and came away dead wrong, yet he was convinced that he was right. He concluded that Jews were agitating for freedom because their burden was too light, leaving them too much time to think. The truth is that they were thinking of freedom because their burden was too heavy; they had too little time. Increasing their burden would only exacerbate their desire for freedom especially since Moses’ arrival gave them cause for hope.
Had Pharaoh thought it through carefully, he might have discerned another point of view. He might have noted that a desire for freedom is understandable among overworked slaves and that easing their burden is a wise idea. Had he reflected further he might have concluded that it isn’t in Egypt’s long term interest to subjugate a growing disenfranchised people. History teaches that when oppressed beyond the point of endurance, people rise up rather than sit back. Had he been completely objective about this he might have actually considered the matter from the slaves’ point of view and perceived the difficulty of living in bondage. His heart might have been touched by the plight of a suffering nation and he might have been moved to ease their burden.
But because he was angry, he did none of the above. Instead he lurched directly into one overarching thought, clouding out everything else. The Jews, a people I am accustomed to dehumanizing and enslaving, had the audacity to demand a reprieve. They actually think they have rights.
Does any of this sound familiar? Is this not the typical mindset of anger? Perfectly rational interpretations of motive and consequence are breezily dismissed in favor of the narrative that offends us most. We follow the flawed narrative to an even more flawed conclusion and imagine terrible consequences if we don’t respond to the perceived provocation. We refuse to consider a different perspective. We refuse to be objective about what might happen if we let it slide. Only one thought pulsates in our minds. This was wrong and I must avenge it.
They tell a story of a host, who discovered that his guest was a landsman. All through dinner the host inquired after the wellbeing of the people he knew from home, but whenever he brought up a name, the visitor replied that the fellow had died. Dismayed, the host asked why so many people died since his last visit.” Listen,” replied the guest, “when I am eating, everyone else may as well be dead. Let me finish eating, then I will tell you all about them.”
Abhorrent as such talk is, we behave similarly when we are angry. There are a hundred different aspects to an event that angered us, but when we are angry, they may as well be dead. We behave as if the only salient piece of the story, is the part that angered us. We are perfectly capable of analyzing the event objectively, when it happens to others. When it is personal, we lose all objectivity. We isolate one aspect of the event and ignore the rest.
In truth, all aspects of the story are integrated with the one we choose to isolate. None would have existed if any one of them were missing. That is the way our universe works. On the surface it appears as if each element stands alone and one has no relation to the other. But we know better. An inner rhythm flows through the universe that links it and makes it one. The entire universe is interconnected on the molecular and atomic level. Even on the macro level the universe enjoys a symbiotic nature and delicate balance that makes each aspect dependent on all others.
The universe pulsates with unity even if it isn’t immediately visible. It was created by one G-d with a single burst of creative power. His cosmic blueprint encompasses its entirety in a single span. From His G-d’s-eye view, every aspect of every event is interconnected. At root, they are one.
Take the event that triggered your temper as an example. There are many facets to the story. Your good friend did something hurtful. He had a reason. He has been your friend for many years. He hasn’t changed and is still your friend. He regrets it. He or another might in fact benefit from what he did. Even you might benefit or at least not be terribly harmed by what he did. All these facts are true and when you calm down and think about it, you will consider them all. Yet, when you stop thinking and let your feelings reign, one feeling dominates. You find yourself myopically focused on the facet that he hurt you.
Imagine a generic burst of light that, when fed through a kaleidoscope, bursts into endless variations of colors. Each color emerges from the generic colorless light, which is why they are all connected. They are all integral parts of each other. Yet, you shut out every brilliant color and isolate only the most offensive and garish color of the bunch. This is an injustice against the community of colors and a violation of the color you do acknowledge. Rather than being part of a brilliant whole, you reduced it to a single garish color.
Suppose that the kaleidoscope was held by a fellow whose goal was to produce intricate patterns of beautiful color. Yet, you destroyed his work by donning a pair of classes that neutralizes all color, but the garish one. It would be a crime against him, his effort and the beauty he created.
This is what we do to the Creator when we fly off the handle in a fit of rage. We erase every dimension and aspect of the provocative event and isolate one infuriating part. We deny the intricate pattern of brilliant symmetry that G-d wove into the fabric of the event and embrace only one side of the story.
So long as we review the matter in the privacy of our thoughts we are capable of considering all aspects of the story. In fact we often arrive at conclusions that include multiple factors. For example we might conclude that the friend still loves us, didn’t mean to hurt us, is sorry that he did, but that we still resent what happened. This is a merging of the story’s many aspects, which underscores its synthesis.
But once we engage the heart and start feeling, it is difficult to moderate the anger with love. This is even more accentuated when we express our anger verbally. At that point, we commit ourselves to a single interpretation of the event and exclude all others. When we act on it, we are even further invested in this approach.
A pattern emerges. The more we regress to our generic self, the more we discern a common theme among the conflicting aspects of the story. The more we apply and express our feelings, the more particular our feelings become. This tells us that at our quintessence we are closely related to the Creator’s perspective, to the unity that incorporates all elements of a story. But when we ground this perspective in our physical and emotional reality we lose touch with that unifying truth.
This is perhaps what our sages meant when they argued that anger is tantamount to idol worship. Just as the worshippers ignore the hand of G-d and focus myopically on what is before them, so do we, when we take leave of our senses in bouts of anger.
If we follow this thought to its conclusion we arrive at a startling insight. Therapists advise us to remove ourselves from the situation, calm down and asses our reaction. Therapists advise this for practical reasons. It helps to calm us and it restores peace. Here we learn that this is more than a calming experience. It is a religious experience. When we remove ourselves from a provocation and reassess the matter from all angles, we find the G-d perspective. Without even realizing it, we engage the cosmic blueprint of the event’s mystical script and in the process, find G-d.
You see, G-d isn’t only found in sacred tomes and holy texts. G-d is found in the mundane every day. When you step away from anger and find interconnectivity, you have had a mystical experience. You found G-d.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org