Through a Mussar Lens: Being Slow to Anger
I get angry too often and too easily, and in that I am not alone. In this fast-paced and self-oriented world, any obstacle or unexpected circumstance can set off the inner flares of anger. Though it may seem that the prevalence of anger is a reflection of how we live today, in truth there is nothing new in our anger. Our ancestors grappled with this powerful, sometimes volcanic, emotion no less than we do. They have lessons to teach us.
We hear every day about anger demolishing relationships, smashing property, and even leading to self-destruction. The Talmud is categorical: “The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life” (Pesachim 113b). It is also written there that breaking things when angry is as sinful as idol worship (Shabbat 105b). Jewish sources relate anger to foolishness—“foranger lingers in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9), and to loss of wisdom—“One who becomes angry, if he is wise, his wisdom leaves him” (Pesachim 66b). And, really, these are just two sides of the same coin. How does someone in a rage look to you? Wise? How do you think you appear to others when you act out of anger? Perhaps foolish? Indeed, anger is more often than not an ineffective or even counter-productive tactic, and only a fool willingly does something that is counter-productive. And so it is that our sages taught that it is “Better to be slow to anger than mighty, to have self-control than conquer a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
It’s not that anger in itself is bad. Quite the contrary. Anger is a valuable inner signal that something is wrong and something needs to be done about it. Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi claimed that, “All my best ideas were born of anger.” He recognized that anger is a powerful source of energy to transform ideas and action.
The issue is not anger; the issue is how we act in response to that trigger. And what we learn from Jewish wisdom is that we should strive never to lose our mastery over our emotional lives. We see that in the liturgy that has us praise God’s quality of being slow to anger. On festival days and especially on Yom Kippur, we intone, “Adonai, Adonai! Compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness .…” Notice that being “slow to anger” is high on the list of characteristics we ascribe to God.
God’s quality of being “slow to anger” provides a role model for us, and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a prominent kabbalist and Mussar teacher of the 16th century, gives us a clear description of how we know this to be the case, writing in Palm Tree of Devorah, that,
“…there is no moment when a person is not nourished and does not exist except by virtue of the divine power that flows down upon him. It follows that no one ever sins against God without the divine outpouring flowing into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. Instead, the Holy One, Blessed be He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffers it.”
Since one of the primary forms of Mussar practice is to model our behavior on what we know of God’s ways (i.e., to walk in God’s ways—v’halachta b’d’rachav; Deuteronomy 28:9), it follows that if God is slow to respond angrily to provocation, then we too should strive to delay our reactions. As the verse says: “At a time of anger God reminds Himself of God’s own mercy” (Chabakuk 3:2). By breathing deeply and not jumping to react, we open a space in which to remind ourselves that we have the capacity to choose another response in place of our anger.
Being slow to anger does not mean accepting being a victim, but neither is there great virtue in acting out one’s anger even in responding to injustice. In fact, reactivity is an instinctive characteristic of animals, and what distinguishes humans from animals is our ability to override emotions with wisdom. My Mussar teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, speaks of Mussar practice helping to open “a space between the match and the fuse,” which could be a definition of wisdom itself. Being slow to react affords us a better perspective from which to respond.
A story is told about a Chassidic leader who would dispense “holy water” guaranteed to eliminate all domestic conflicts. Whenever a husband or wife had an urge to argue, he or she was to hold some of the water in his or her mouth without swallowing for as long as possible. This “holy water” proved to be very effective in stopping arguments and diffusing anger. Similarly, the Alter of Kelm made a personal resolution never to get angry unless he first put on a special garment he had set aside as his “anger clothes.”
The sages recognized that what lies at the root of anger is often exaggerated pride or self-centeredness. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter reflected on a story in the Talmud (Berachot 18b) about a man who was insulted by his wife and then went to sleep in a cemetery. He explained that the man did so with the intention of breaking the pride that was prompting him to respond with anger.
Learning from God, we do not want to rush to righteous judgment because that does not create a space in which the other person has the opportunity to correct what they have done to offend us. How much better to receive an apology that can heal a rift than to deliver a blow (even if only verbal) that deepens one.
Another good reason to be slow to anger is that you may not have your facts right. I was once waiting for my bags in an airport and overheard a woman berating someone over the phone because the other person was not there to pick her up. After a stream of invective came a pause, and then, “You mean there’s a time difference?”
You have to wonder, too, if getting angry is the most skillful and effective response you can come up with. Since I mention airports, I was once in line at customer service because the airline messed up and I had missed my flight. I had every right to be annoyed and I was. The line was long and as I was forced to wait, I had time to cool down enough to realize that if I unleashed my righteous anger, it would feel very good in that moment, but almost certainly I’d be paying for my own hotel room that night. If I could smooth out that anger and respond from a different place, there was a chance the airline would pay for my room. How much better to be an effective victor than a self-gratified loser.
Here we have three good reasons to be slow to anger. And there are more, too. In fact, it is hard to think of a single reason to praise being quick to anger.
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