Sermon for Rosh haShanah Day 1 5780

I heard a story on the radio this summer that stopped me in my tracks.  Content warning: It contains violence that may be hard to hear, but it does have a happy ending.  It was about a woman in Austria, who was out for a bike ride and was hit intentionally by a driver.  He got out of the car and continued to assault her.  Then he hauled her injured body into his vehicle, he took her to his remote house where he tied her up and proceeded to find various ways to hurt and maim her.   She later told reporters that she thought he would kill her, saying, “He was full of hatred.”  

But the thing was, she had just become a mother 14 weeks earlier, and her little son was waiting at home for her.  So she drew upon every bit of her wits and observed her surroundings.  She noticed that there were orchids all over the house and so she complimented him on them. It changed everything – he became nice to her!  He told her that he was a gardener and started talking to her about his difficult life – the death of his father, his alcoholic mother, and the girlfriends who had betrayed him.  He told her that he had done what he did because he needed to vent his anger through violence.  

She had taken some courses in psychology and knew enough that she should express sympathy for where he was coming from.  She listened to him.  And when she saw an opportunity, she suggested a way out of their predicament; that they pretend the whole thing was an accident if he would simply let her go.  He agreed, and actually went so far as to drive her home.  It was only after she was safely inside with the doors locked that she called the police.  (Source: Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung, August 1, 2019)

This story is amazing to me because it is a miracle.  As a parent, I know I would fight like she did to escape her ordeal and return to her child.  And, also as a mom of two 3-year olds, I know how difficult it is to get through the storm of anger.  This woman saw a window, a way of possibly returning to her baby boy, and she grabbed it.  But there was no guarantee that it would work – she just had to try.

And so it is with us.  We are living through a storm of anger in this country and in this world.  We are witness to the kind of rage, darkness, and hopelessness that impels people to take up firearms and kill innocent bystanders.  The kind of anger and fear of immigrants that enables a horrible kind of callousness, permitting to be families to be separated and little children neglected in crowded detention camps. The kind of anger that makes permissible bullying, hate speech and acts of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. This is the kind of anger that kills, just as it killed my friend Jerry and ten other Jewish souls at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. 

And if I may: we have a president who was elected in part because he understood and tapped into the anger many people were feeling in this country.  And now, with the impeachment proceedings, his opponents, who have been incredibly frustrated and angry at his behavior, are gleefully and hungrily waiting for him to go down. It is a cycle of anger; a continued storm of fury.  

I cannot guarantee how or when it will pass, but like the woman who was captured, we have to be ready for the windows of opportunity as they present themselves to deescalate the situation, to show empathy, to present solutions that may or may not work. 

How do we transform anger, whether it is someone else’s or our own? 

I am reminded of the classic 1976 movie “Network,” where the character Howard Beale, a newscaster, is played by the actor Peter Finch.  Here is a bit of his famous monologue:

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad… It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter…We know the air is unfit to breathe, our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad. Worse than bad… It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in a house as slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster, and TV, and my steel belted radials and I won’t say anything.” Well I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad. … You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being. G-d Dammit, my life has value.” So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!””

We laugh, because this all still feels terribly relatable today. And that anger he has, that righteous anger, it is powerful and it is good.  But while anger can be a necessary and healthy response to injustice, it is dangerous to remain angry or resort too easily to anger. It is not a new thing, this anger in our country, but the level of it has been rising for decades – imperceptibly but surely as the seawater levels.  I feel we are now at a breaking point.  Being ignorant or becoming numb is only an option for the most privileged among us.  But hopefully, there are windows of opportunity if we act with skill, love, purpose. 

Let’s talk about anger, yes today of all days, because Rosh haShanah, the head of the year, is such a window, calling us to reflect on and challenge the cycles of destructive behavior that we have become accustomed to over the course of time.  Now is the time for change. 

Anger is right here, in our Rosh haShanah Torah and Haftarah readings that we read every year.  The backdrop of our Torah portion is that, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had long been frustrated that she could not bear a child.  Her maidservant Hagar had a son by Abraham, which incensed her.  So, Sarah mistreated her, and Hagar ran away as a result, and then came back.  Now finally, Sarah conceived and bore a son, and this is where our parsha today begins.  But Sarah, even though she celebrated and felt joy at Isaac’s arrival, wanted Hagar and son gone. Abraham, though troubled, allowed it to happen because God assured him that Ishmael will live and will be the head of a nation. Sarah’s jealousy and rage toward Hagar sets the entire drama in motion.  Imagine if she could have somehow allowed Hagar and Ishmael to stay – would today the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael be adversaries?

And in our Haftarah, we will hear of Hannah’s infertility and how she prayed to God and made deals with God in order to have a child.  She is driven to the God’s temple to pray in sadness, desperation, and yes, anger, at her plight.  The text explicitly uses the word ka’as – anger – multiple times to describe Hannah’s feelings.  Not only was she sad about not having a child, but her husband’s other wife Peninah would frequently provoke her because Peninah had children and lorded it over poor Hannah. Hannah would then get so upset she would cry and could not eat. When God at last did grant her a child, she promised her son Samuel to God’s service as a priest.

Here we have two very different models in our holy texts for how to deal with anger. It is not for me to judge whether their anger was justified or if one approach was more right than the other, but I do find it interesting that their anger is not usually discussed in traditional commentaries.  I think there is a reason for that.  Classical Jewish texts instruct us to avoid anger and keep it in check.  A few actually liken it to idolatry.

Here is a well-known example from the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 105b: 

R’ Shimon Ben Elazar said in the name of Chilfa bar Agra, who said in the name of R’ Yochanan Ben Nuri: One who tears his clothing in anger, or who smashed vessels in his anger, or who scatters money in his anger – he should be in your eyes like an idolater. For this is the way of the evil inclination: Today it tells him to do this, and tomorrow it tells him to do that, until it tells him to worship idolatry, and he goes and worships.

That is to say, that terrible storm of anger that makes you see red?  It is a strange god that threatens to overpower you and leads you to make poor choices at best; destructive choices at worst.  In psychological terms, anger is created by ego, an image of our esteem or importance.  Anger is a byproduct of the ego feeling threatened.  

But anger, in my view, should not be dismissed; it is an important indicator that our boundaries, our healthy limits, might be under attack.  Sarah was angry because she felt her son Isaac’s future was being undermined.  And we may rightfully be angry when someone breaks into our home and steals our stuff.  Anger is a healthy response to a violation or trespass of any kind.

However, anger is not a primary emotion.  Psychologists will tell you another feeling always gives rise to anger.  For example, say you were cut off on the road, and you felt angry at the other driver.  But in the exact moment the accident almost happened, there was, even for a split second, another emotion, and that was probably fear.  Anger comes, actually, to soothe.  Just like in the case of the man who assaulted the woman biker, he used anger as a way of soothing his loneliness and sense of rejection and powerlessness.

Many of us are self-medicating with anger against all sorts of psychological pain.  It hardly gives us a sense of inner harmony, but anger does help give us a certain comfort.  After all, we’re not wrong, or bad, or selfish or inconsiderate – it’s our spouse, our child, our neighbor, our co-worker.  It’s that bigoted or naive person on the other side of the political aisle. In the face of a sense of powerlessness, anger helps us feel more in control.

And so in that way, anger can be a drug, an addiction, indeed, an idol we erect.  It is so easy, so tempting to resort to anger and to blame.  If we let anger numb us, if we let anger control us, we lose ourselves, we lose our soul.

The second century mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in his work Metok miDvash, describes how anger chips away at our souls. He says:

The Hebrew word for “soul” is neshama; the word for “breath” is “nesheema“. This explains why breathing exercises affect the soul. It is also the reason why anger – called “kotzer ruach“, or “short breath” – weakens the soul by affecting the breath. Another name for “anger” is “af ” which means “nose”. Anger is expressed by the snorting of the breath in the nostrils. Controlling anger with a long breath reasserts the soul. 

We must figure out how to respond to anger, to transform it and use for good.  In this way we can reclaim our soul.

Anger, when honored, has something deeply important to tell us about ourselves and about the concerns or needs of another person.  When you are angry, it is telling you something – so, what is it saying?  Perhaps we can ask it, “Why, anger, are you here?” And then listen.  

In his book, simply entitled “Anger,” Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, instructs us that listening without judgment or blame is the quickest way for the anger to dissipate.  This kind of intentional listening is deeply compassionate and humane, restoring a person’s sense of dignity.

It may seem counterintuitive, because we may instinctively want to push away or dismiss anger, either our own anger or that of another person.  In our haftarah this morning, when Hannah, in her anger and pain, came to pray at the temple, the priest Eli misjudges and scornes her.  He accuses her of being a drunk. But Hannah wisely names and honors her anger. She says to him, “No sir, I am a woman sore in spirit, and no wine have I drunk. For I was only pouring out my soul to God…I was just speaking out of great preoccupation and anger.”  Eli then joins her in prayer, saying “May the God of Israel give you what you ask.”

Anger is neither bad nor good, it is energy – it is telling you something valuable about yourself – your limits, your values. To ignore it is to ignore your voice, your values.  But it cannot have the last word.

The poet Maya Angelou famously wrote, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

So the next step is to talk back, with love, to our anger. Anger must be responded to proactively, lest we become bitter or resentful.  When someone treats you badly, we must find a healthy, constructive way to respond.  Maybe you decide to speak with the person, or maybe you resolve not to engage in that behavior yourself.  With sacred intention, we can use anger to create a better, loving world. In this way, anger is essential to our healing and also to our teshuvah process, our path of returning to God.

In our daily life we run continuously.  We rarely give ourselves the capacity or opportunity to stop and look deeply into our life and our feelings.   But if we can take time for reflection and sit with anger or other difficult feelings, they will speak to you.  

Like Hannah, you can ask yourself, “What positive action can I take to transform my feelings of anger?” For her, it was prayer; for ourselves, it could be meditation, writing, speaking out, or acts of social justice or compassion.  This High Holiday season, let us give ourselves that gift – to breath, to pray, to sit, and hopefully to take constructive action.  

Lest your anger become an idol, you must take your anger and transform it into something healthy and positive.  Proverbs 16:32 encourages us not only to be slow to anger, but to master our passions.  This Rosh HaShanah let us remember that our true power lies in mastering our passions – understanding our anger and our desires and responding to them with our truth. When we are able to live and serve others in connection with a vision of a world fulfilled we will not become bitter and we will naturally be slow to anger. 

Keyn yehi ratzon – may it be so.  Shana tova.