Using Anger as a Pathway to Holiness

On Pesakh, as we re-enact our personal and national liberation from Mitzrayim [i] and consider possibilities for achieving greater freedom in our own lives, our senses and emotions are heightened. After drinking our third glass of wine, we pour a cup for Elijah and proceed to demand that G-d pour out in a different way: Shefoch chamatcha el hagoyim: “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not know You…Pour out your fury on them…Pursue them in rage & destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord [ii].”  Like veterans re-experiencing the trauma of war, on seder night our experience of revisiting our darkest places and times (both historical and current) can evoke powerful emotion. The haggadah incorporates symbols and readings that facilitate expression of sorrow and grief, [iii] and in this section of the seder we allow for the emotion of rage. Evidently, there are times and places where anger is appropriate.

In fact, our Scriptures refer to anger in its various forms and expressions over 500 times. [iv] Undoubtedly, it is the most prevalent biblical emotion. Jacob is angry with his wife Rachel; Jonah is angry with G-d; Moses is angry with the people; the people are angry with Moses; Moses is angry with his nephews; Pharaoh is angry with his servants; G-d is angry with Moses; G-d is angry with Miriam and Aaron; G-d is angry with the people; Saul is angry with his son Jonathan; Jeremiah is angry with G-d; Habbakuk is angry with G-d, etc., etc.

More important than simply noting the frequency with which a concept arises, the kabbalists teach us to examine the first occurrence of the concept or emotion in the Bible. This provides a lens through which to understand and gain perspective on all future biblical references to it, and is instructive for own lives.

Anger first appears in the story of Cain and Abel.[v] Cain becomes “exceedingly angry” when Abel’s offering is found more acceptable than his. G-d asks him “why are you angry…” and (seemingly without waiting for a response) proceeds to tell Cain that he still has an opportunity to harness his anger, perhaps even channel it to a constructive use. Cain is apparently unable to rise to G-d’s challenge: to identify and take control over his anger. Consumed by his anger, he kills Abel.

G-d and our biblical ancestors appear unafraid to publicly demonstrate their anger, perhaps making them more relatable to later generations. Anger—be it G-d’s or ours—seems to be an inevitable part of life. Unless we believe that we are greater than our Creator, anger would seem to be something that we should welcome and cultivate, rather than attempt to eradicate through piety or training of the mind.

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf betrayal, G-d self-describes as “slow to anger” [vi]; in my life, [vii] I have “permission”—perhaps even a mitzvah or an “obligation”—to express anger at injustices perpetuated toward myself and others. This attribute (and the passage in general) directs us to acknowledge our anger, just as G-d does. G-d doesn’t apologize or feel shame for having and expressing this emotion. From these teachings, we can infer that G-d is challenging each of us to “own” our anger and to take responsibility for it along with our other emotions, to confront our anger rather than avoid it.

With this in mind, we can interpret the question “Why are you angry?” that is sometimes directed at us as: “OK, you’re angry. Now what are you going to do with that anger?” Will it be left unchecked, or can it be mastered just as we are enjoined to master every other object and emotion that G-d puts into our world? [viii] Maybe we can ultimately learn to emulate Moses who often employed his anger in the service of G-d, or Pinchas who receives heavenly acclaim for using his anger to defend G-d’s honor [ix].

When our anger is ignited, it is our responsibility to cultivate thought-out responses that emulate G-d’s attribute and directive of being “slow to anger.” Shefoch Chamatcha reminds us that open—even public—display, discussion, recognition, and validation of anger, rather than avoidance, can be both healthy and necessary. A door opens to forgiveness and reconciliation, just as the door of our home opens to welcome Eliyahu and redemption. 

At the seder, we create a safe—and sacred—space for a wide range of emotions. May our emotional and spiritual growth through the seder’s 15 steps bring us healing and wholeness, and challenge us to use our passions to create a better (inner and outer) world. 

As a board certified chaplain, Rabbi Daniel Coleman provides spiritual care to patients, families, and staff of all faiths and none at North Shore University Hospital, New York. Daniel guides individuals in giving voice to their fears, angst, laments, and hopes. Privileged to work at the intersection of medicine and religion, he enjoys frequent daily opportunities to talk to and about G-d.

[i] Mitzrayim—the Hebrew word for Egypt—derives from the word metzar—a narrow or constricted space. Seder enables us to explore the “Egypt”—the constraints—in our lives and how we can make a contemporary personal journey toward a place of greater expansiveness—our Promised Land. Each year on Pesakh we are invited to examine what enslaves us, taste freedom, and take steps toward it, while being mindful of and thankful for the blessings and miracles along the way.

[ii] Psalms 79:6,7; 69:25; Lamentations 3:66.

[iii] Examples include: the breaking/broken matzah and subsequent search for wholeness; the egg symbolizing fertility, death, and the circle of life; maror, representing the bitterness in our life (combined with our quest to palliate it with charoset); saltwater representing our tears, etc.

[iv] Five Hebrew words are used to convey anger in the Bible: af (over 200 references), chaimah (125), charah (93), ketzef (62), ka’as (75).

[v] Genesis 4:3.

[vi] Exodus 32:19.    

[vii] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 133b, expounding the imperative of imitatio dei found in Deuteronomy 10:12 and 28:9.

[viii] Genesis 1:28.

[ix] Numbers 25:11.


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