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January 22, 2013 2:00 am
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Angry Birds, Jewish Wisdom

avatar by Erica Brown / JNS.org

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A complete set of the Babylonian Talmud. Photo: Reuvenk.

I had a teacher many years who was very effective at his job. He communicated his ideas well and had a pleasant affect. One day he got angry with us, very angry. The anger did not exactly match the “crime.” What the crime was, I can’t remember now. But I will not forget the moment. We students saw a side to him we had not seen before. He lost his temper. His face reddened, and he raised his voice. Then he was screaming. It was shocking and uncomfortable.

The next day when class began, he cited a passage from Maimonides that justifies a controlled act of anger as a way of instilling fear in one’s household as a character-building device. I don’t know about the rest of the students, but I wasn’t buying it. I was hoping for an apology, not a defense.

On the daily Talmud page for Jan. 17, I came across the reference that Maimonides used in making his case for anger. “One who rips his garments in his anger, or who scatters his money in his anger, or who breaks his objects in his anger, is like an idol worshipper… that is the expression of the evil inclination. Today it tells him to do this, and tomorrow it tells him to do that.” Anger provokes destruction; it can be a random or impulsive force that takes over our hearts and minds.

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From this statement, the Talmud goes on to discuss “controlled anger” for educational purposes. It gives examples of various sages and the way they leveraged anger to achieve certain educational goals related to their families or as leaders in a community. Two examples involve smashing objects. No doubt, the sound and shattering resembles the explosive nature of anger itself. Perhaps with the breakage, there is some sense of peace or relief. I have seen anger released by people, and the intense energy it consumes. After its expression, the anger often dissipates like a valve letting off steam. Exhaustion often sets in, and the anger is spent.

As I was reviewing the Talmud’s words, I had a singular thought. Maybe this worked for certain sages who were holy people, steeped in scholarship and driven by selflessness, but I would not advise it as an educational technique for the rest of us. It is way too risky. When I think of my teacher long ago using this excuse, I was not impressed. We were not three-year old children who touched a stove or ran out into the street. The anger just made him look bad and lodged negative associations with his teaching, even though he gave us so much.

Instead, I think of Psalms 37, a psalm of great depth about the inner life. The subject of the psalm feels surrounded by injustice and pain. He sees wicked people prosper and is overcome by anger. The author advises this person not to be consumed by anger (one of the Hebrew words for anger is rooted in the verb “to eat”—it eats us alive) and instead take the long view. Goodness endures. Injustice will be overturned. Wisdom will prevail. Patience.

Fury, the psalm tells us, can only do harm. It means that external problems have come inside of us, occupying space in our minds rent-free. At that point, anger will not accomplish anything but change us. “Give up anger,” the psalmist recommends and spend all that passion on positive thinking. Control the anger, or the anger will control you.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

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