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3 Cheshvan 5763 - October 9, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
A Middos Workshop: Cooling Down the Angry Fires

Based on Shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

In previous articles we examined the challenging problem of haughtiness (ga'avoh), our basic human tendency to feel more important than others. We learned several techniques for eliminating this trait from our lives, most importantly to concentrate on the reality that Hashem's view of us far outweighs what we or our peers think of us.

Now that we have scraped off the first layer of pride from our hearts, we can analyze its direct offshoot, anger. Simply put, anger is the expression of ga'avoh in severe proportions.

"His blood was boiling." "She blew off steam." "In the heat of the moment."

Have you ever noticed how many cliches relate anger to heat? The Meiri explains that in fact, anger is the process of blood boiling in our hearts. As it boils, our water begins to steam and ultimately exits through our red nose. This is Rashi's explanation for the Torah's common expression, Vayichar af, literally "his nose burned." In essence, a person in a state of anger resembles a tea kettle spurting out steam from the spout.

Let us develop this thought. Anger is a conscious decision to apply emotion to a particular experience. One takes an experience to heart and activates a heating process. As the blood boils, its heat needs to escape and it forces its way out in the form of anger.

Dovid Hamelech warns us, "Lo yihyeh becho eil zor -- You shall not have a foreign deity inside of you." What is this false god? Chazal teach us that this refers to anger. A foreign deity? Granted, anger is damaging, but idol worship seems a bit extreme. What is the connection?

A deity is something to which one becomes subservient. When we get angry, we allow our emotions to escalate to such a degree that they control us, in full. In other words, we literally create for ourselves something to control us.

To the modern person, old-fashioned idol worship seems ludicrous. How can I bow down to something I just created? How can my creation have power over me? But someone who allows anger to control him is doing the very same thing: giving power to something he just created.

Anger is a conscious decision to forgo logic and to become irrational. An event occurs -- albeit frustrating, annoying and insulting -- and I must make a decision. Shall I control my emotions or permit them to control me?

If I choose the latter, I have chosen a foreign deity for myself. I then subjugate myself to my emotions and allow them to fly freely. In fact, this haughtiness has snowballed so much that it has convinced me to do whatever I want, even against Hashem's will.

Let's examine what makes anger so terrible. Ka'as is different from most other middos. When we misuse our other character traits, the area of damage is somewhat limited. Let us take ta'avoh (lust) for example. If one craves a particular food, he is only interested in that one food. If he lusts for ice cream, then he wants ice cream. Even if one's passion encompasses many foods, it is limited to those physical pleasures.

However anger is an all-inclusive middoh that causes one to throw away everything.

The tumah (impurity) of avodoh zora completely takes over the person, affecting his entire being. The only comparable situation to this is anger. In a fit of rage, there is virtually nothing that one would not do.

Kabboloh teaches us that it is forbidden to gaze at the face of an angry person, because at that moment, there is an avodoh zora operating within him.

When someone is unhappy with life and angry at Hashem chas vesholom, he will search for a way to get whatever he wants. A person can set for himself the rules of his avodoh zora, thus freeing himself from all limitations.

Similarly, an angry person makes anger into an entity and is prepared to listen to whatever it dictates. The Zohar Hakodosh says that when one becomes angry, he actually loses part of his spiritual essence and replaces it with a bit of yetzer hora.

We have the choice. If we wish, we could engage in anger and make a rational decision to be irrational -- a sensible choice to be insensible. In other words, we can choose to be controlled by anger, or we can choose to control IT.

The "Real Me"

Nowadays, people search for their true essence, by traveling to India and beyond to find themselves. But Chazal taught us years ago that we need not travel to discover our inner being.

They said, "Bishloshoh devorim odom nikar: bekiso, beka'aso, uvekoso." A person can be truly discovered through three things: his pocket, his anger, and his cup.

Setting aside the pocket for now, let's look at the parallel between drunkenness (his cup) and anger. When a person engages in either of these areas, he loses his sense and self- control. Once his protective coating is removed, his true self is exposed.

After one sobers up from his drunkenness and recalls what he said or did, he wonders, "I can't believe I said that!" "Where in the world did that come from?" But we tell the drunkard that nothing comes out that did not come in.

The same is true of anger. In an angry outburst, insults are hurled. In a fit of rage, accusations are flung. After calming down, the angry person may be as shocked at himself as the recipient of his wrath. What did I just say? I did not really mean that! I am usually so sensitive and loving! Where did it come from?

Chazal tell us that it all came from deep within. Those were those silent thoughts and feelings that you always kept in check, but this time they escaped through the hole that your anger opened for them. So one good reason not to get angry is to prevent exposing ourselves to ourselves and others. There may be many things we opt to keep under lock and key, but our anger will quickly undo that.

The Meiri warns us not to be quick to anger, "pen tikro beka'asecho asher lo titofeir beretzoncho -- lest you tear something in your anger that you cannot sew up later when want to." An angry person can often destroy something that is irreparable. Many a marriage was broken by a fit of anger. The same with partnerships and friendships. By the time the tide subsided, it was too late. The castle was smashed and thrown into the sea. Another expression of this is that a ripped book can be repaired, but an emotionally broken child can not.

Our Value of Logic

The Orchos Tzaddikim presents another motivation for controlling our anger. The author urges us to determine how important logic is to us. When we get angry, we discover how much we truly value sense. If we do something irrational during our anger, we know that sense has limited value to us. If our life would be honestly dictated by logical wisdom, then we could not overreact even when we are upset. In other words, if we fully integrated wisdom and sense into our being, we would always react reasonably.

To further illustrate this point, let us think of someone getting angry. At that moment you cannot present any line of logic to him. You simply cannot reason with emotion. One's sense is just not there. Do we really want to lose our sense and release our grasp on logic? If not, we should keep our emotions in line and allow our minds to rule over them.

Combating Anger

We have proven the importance of overcoming anger, but the big question is: how?

Anger is very real and a hard habit to break. The best way to begin to deal with it is to analyze our past bursts of anger and to gain insight into what triggers them off.

The first step in combating anger is regretting it. Those who are accustomed to blowing off steam several times a day may feel no contrition for speaking sharply to others and losing control. Some may even believe that pent-up anger is unhealthy. One of the proponents of this theory was not invited to his own children's weddings. We see where that method leads. Indeed, the Torah teaches us to regret all our wrong actions and never to condone them.

The second step is determining why I become angry. After that horrendous outburst, it may be difficult to understand why I "lost it." After all, it is illogical for me to consciously decide to abandon logic. I must therefore attempt to retrace those cognitive steps that brought me to the doorstep of that anger. Once I have done this, I can hope to steer my thoughts in a different direction the next time around.

Now that I have regretted my anger and determined what triggered it, I can prepare for the future. What will happen the next time I feel my heartbeat accelerating and the blood rushing to my head? How can I stop anger in its footsteps?

Ramban tells us, "Tisnaheig tomid ledabeir kol devorecho benachas lechol odom uvechol eis, uvezeh tinotzeil min haka'as -- Accustom yourself to always speak calmly to everyone all the time, and with this you will be saved from anger." Sounds easy, but experience proves that old habits die hard.

The Vilna Gaon recommends gradually building towards that level. For a mild-mannered person, simply speaking calmly is enough to gain self-control. But someone with a more volatile nature will have to take slow but sure steps towards the goal of controlling anger. To begin, even counting to ten and then exploding (if necessary!) is a step in the right direction.

Incidentally, counting to ten is a very effective method of combating anger for the following reason. There are four stages in the process of anger: 1) becoming offended; 2) becoming disturbed over it; 3) losing control; 4) acting angrily. Counting to ten allows time for sense to kick in and stop the cycle somewhere between stage two and stage three. Even if I do explode, it will be a much more tame response. Gradually, I will become more accustomed to controlling my emotions and less likely to "lose them."

How does one completely eradicate anger? The question is better posed: "Is it possible to totally eradicate anger?"

The answer is no! Pirkei Ovos teaches us that are four levels of angry people. The first is one who is angered easily and difficult to appease. The second is one who is easily angered, but is also easily appeased. The third is one who is slow to anger, but difficult to appease. And the final level is one who is not easily angered and is also easy to pacify.

Something seems to be missing here. What about the one who never gets angry? The answer is that, with the exception of Hillel Hazokein, this level does not exist. Chazal point out that even Moshe Rabbeinu was brought to the point of anger in defense of Hashem's mitzvos. We must accept that anger is part of our human emotions. But we can also learn to deal with it and keep it under control as best as possible.

Are there any more tips on overcoming anger? Well, one excellent way to avoid common anger is to lower our level of expectations. Most anger results from things not happening the way we anticipated. We generally become disturbed over our control -- or rather the lack of it -- in a particular situation.

As we mentioned, the root of anger is haughtiness and pride. It all begins when I expect something to happen my way. So when it does not, I get angry. If I would lower the level of my expectations, I would not be so disappointed when life does not listen to me.

Take the example of a husband coming home after a long day at kollel or work. As he travels home, he imagines a beautiful scene of all his children sleeping, a warm meal awaiting him, and a calm wife eager to hear about his day.

The reality he meets upon opening the door is drastically different. He trips over his son's toy car, and two children run past him squealing with delight as their mother tries to catch them. A smell of burnt fish is emanating from the kitchen. Suddenly he feels his nose flaring and his heart racing with anger.

Now if, on the way home, he had imagined a more chaotic scene or expected to face total mayhem upon opening the door, what he would actually meet would be somewhat encouraging. He may even be pleasantly surprised with what he finds! A good way to avoid anger is to imagine the worst possible case scenario and half-expect it to happen.

One more helpful tip is to put the problem in perspective, i.e. how important is it in the grand scheme of things?

We tend to feel that anger gives us a license to react however we wish. Once we are angry, we excuse ourselves for anything we do. But before flying off the handle, let us think about the effect of our anger. Will it or will it not accomplish what we want it to? And will we be capable of undoing all the damage it causes?

In conclusion, becoming more in tune with our internal thought processes will help us avoid most angry reactions and control them to the point that they will, at least, not harm others during our frustrating moments of life.

Rav Dovid Siegel is rosh kollel of Toras Chaim in Kiryat Sefer.

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