Rosh Hashanah 5777
On May 30, 1980, Candy Lightner got the news that every parent dreads. She opened her door to discover two police officers standing before her. She knew deep in her soul that something was terribly, terribly wrong. It was. With crushing force, they spoke the words that launched grief so deep that only a few people, with great pain, can understand. Her daughter had been hit and killed by a drunk driver.
Candy Lightner is the founder of MADD; mothers against drunk drivers. Folded into the title of the organization is the mystery of how, in the face of such tremendous loss, she is able to move one foot in front of the other day after day. When asked why she is able to… she answers simply, “I got angry.”
“I got angry.” She was angry that someone else’s decision took away her daughter. She was angry that time and again, others were making the same decision. She got angry. Then, she decided to do something about it.
There is a certain type of anger, an anger that burns into justice and turns into action that even in small moments, is holy and necessary.
It is holy. Even as we approach Yom Kippur, the anniversary of the day when Moses brought us the second set of tables down from Mt. Sinai, even that day reminds us that God, God-self, blesses the anger that leads to justice and forgiveness.
When did God choose Moses as the leader of the Jewish people? When did God decide that Moses would be the man who would not only bring out the multitude of Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but lead us toward the Promised Land, to be the man to receive the holy scroll into his hands?
It was, quite literally, while Moses was on the lamb from Pharaoh. God asked Moses to be our greatest leader, our leader who would enjoy the closest partnership with God, after Moses lost his temper and violently killed an Egyptian taskmaster. Moses, the man referred to by rabbinic tradition as Moshe Rebenu, Moses Our Rabbi of Rabbis, arguably the most important man in the history of our people, was chosen for such a task only after he proved to have a severe and sudden temper.
There are explanations written for why God chose Moses for this task in spite his temper. I would argue, though, that Moses was chosen to lead the people not in spite of his temper, but because of it.
God saw in Moses a person who would turn rage into justice for the people. God knew that this type of anger, this type of rage, would turn into justice and care.
Why? Healthy rage and anger are in fact divine. Rage and anger are entirely necessary for the healthy functioning of a human being.
“I got angry” is a statement that has spurned tremendous action for the good of the world. “I got angry.” It is a statement that has saved lives.
Getting angry can also raise us up to acts of justice and right. Feeling reserved, shying away from controversy, or having anxiety about confrontation can all melt when the adrenalin of indignation starts to course through us.
In the book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson lays out in detail his journey to bring schools to boys and girls in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As one can imagine, or at least try to, navigating the political, social, religious and geographical terrain of this area was treacherous and challenging. Mortenson was kidnapped, imprisoned, lied to, and cheated. He heard gross and ignorant statements from Americans. His devotion to the mission of bringing peace to the region, and thus the world, through education not based on religious fundamentalism, came at great personal and familial cost. Time and again, one can hear Mortenson declare, “I got angry.” Without pause, he explains what he would do as a result, how he would use that outrage as passion to work around every obstacle in his way. His story is remarkable and convincing. The anger he seems to feel is always short-lived because it turns into something that advances world peace in a stunning and lasting way.
“I got angry.” As a result, 51,000 Pakistani and Afghani boys and girls have received a secular education; leaving an opening with the next generation for dialogues of peace and strength.
Anger is holy and entirely necessary to the health and survival of humanity…to the survival of the world. It causes us to act to serve justice and peace. A study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in February 2006, scientifically proves what Torah has known for thousands of years.
According to Jennifer Lerner who conducted the study, “Having that sense of anger leads people to actually feel some power in what otherwise is a maddening situation.” The question becomes, “how will you use that power?”
In the Gates of Prayer, the prayer-book we used until the new Mishkan T’fiallah was published, there is a remarkable prayer. It begins with the line, “When justice burns within us like a flaming fire.” And ends with, “Your goodness enters our lives and we can begin to change the world.” When Justice burns within us like a flaming fire? What is this flaming fire? What is justice? It is anger put to action. In the words of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, “Anger is just a demand for change, a passionate wish for things to be different.”
Just get angry. When we feel the power of our anger, act. Burn with justice, move to defend the oppressed, the poor, the ignored, and the voiceless. Move to save us. When anger burns into a path of action, I tell you it is holy. It is Godly.
Anger only becomes a problem when it sits untapped inside us. It is like the burning flame of justice. When we act, it has fuel and purpose. When we allow it smolder and fester, it only burns one person…us. And if we are not driven to do something about what is making us angry, it will remain inside of us; smoldering and seething until every other happy emotion is consumed by its pestering and lasting embers.
Everet L. Worthington, Jr. in his book “Forgiving and Reconciling” he refers to this emotional phenomenon. He says it “is like carrying around a red-hot rock with the intention of someday throwing it back at the one who hurt you. It tires us and burns us.”
It tires us and burns us. This anger, its hurt, pain and angst, it is burning us. Carrying the weight of its anguish is tiring us.
And what of those in its path? Worthington goes on to explain that, as we cradle this burning rock, harming ourselves all the while, we tend to throw it out at those around us, weather or not they were the ones who gave it to us. We burn others, and they learn to avoid our blaze…to avoid us.
So what to do with this burning and bruising rock? What to do with heat withering every joyful emotion in its path?
Give it back. Place anger back where it belongs. If it is a situation we can change, we change it. If it is a person we can speak to, we speak. If it is not, if we have no control, if the person who gave us this anger is dead or inaccessible, what then? Then we must place our red-hot rock down at our feet and walk away. We must forgive.
Anger is only negative when it has nowhere to go.
So often, we are told that anger is bad; we should not feel it. Women and girls seem to be taught this almost universally. When we ignore it, when both women and men bury anger, it does not go away! Rather it grows, flames feeding off of each other, turning into a missile of rage. Study after study concludes that this burial of rage is, in fact, the main ingredient necessary for addiction and substance abuse. What of our rage? If we are fearlessly honest, we must admit each of us carries some type of wrath, frustration, hurt which burns a part of our soul.
Now, I share personally. I have carried my own red-hot rock, flaring inside of me. What gave me the rock is unimportant. Rather over the years, as I have been unable to give it back to the person from whom it came, it has continued to hurt mostly me. At times, though, it has flared against those around me. I have handed it out and burnt others whose remarks or actions have only been small moments of hurt, and not nearly deserving of the fireball they have received.
A few years ago, something happened. A small moment, sliding by unnoticed at the time, but turning out to be profound and life changing. After a particularly tense weekend, my sister felt my anger spilling into places it did not belong…causing me to hurt her. She said to me, and unfortunately, in words a rabbi should not repeat, but basically, she said, “we all know what happened. Now either do something about it or get over it.” When I saw how my anger affected my cherished sister, I was startled.
The miracle here is that I did not hurl my red-hot rock back in her face, but rather rejoiced that I have a sister who continually reminds me how to be a Jew. I took her advice. I cannot give the raging rock back to the person to whom it belongs. Rather, in studying about forgiveness, in listening to people’s stories, in searching inward, I have begun to lay it in front of me and have started to walk away. I have realized that forgiveness is not equivalent to saying something is okay. I have realized that forgiveness is not retroactively giving permission to someone to hurt us. Rather, forgiveness is deciding that the red-hot rock is tiring and burning.
“I GOT ANGRY.” Then, I did nothing. This kind of anger is not holy. This kind of anger is the kind that causes pain.
We have 9 days until Yom Kippur. Do you know your red-hot rock?
Recently, I worked with a team on a join project. This team consisted of a psychologist, another professional, and me. Let us call the other professional Ploni. Ploni often proudly asserted that he is famous for never getting angry, “I just do not experience anger.” As soon as these words left his mouth, the psychologist caught my eye. We both knew exactly what the other was thinking. Ploni had to experience anger, his subconscious just kept it from entering his consciousness. The more we got to know each other, the more obvious it became to the psychologist and me that Ploni was indeed angry, he just buried it. This is intuitive for many who live in North America. We practice this repression from the time we take our first breath. For some, based on how they are raised, this is more pronounced than others. Often it is because getting angry with the grown-ups upon who depended for survival would have been unsafe. So without consciously realizing it, we taught ourselves how not to experience the anger. It is why I try, definitely just try, never to respond to my kids’ anger with my own emotion. I want them to get angry with me. It is the best way I can teach them how to move through conflict productively.
In this sermon, I cannot preach. I cannot wag my finger at you and declare what needs be done. Rather, in the old axiom that misery loves company, I am guessing my struggle is shared by many of you. If you feel the burning of unrequited anger inside of you, then I ask that we join hands and walk this journey together.
Greg Mortensen used his anger to diagnose what actions were necessary; Candy Lightner’s deep fury birthed a movement that continues to save lives. When we say “I got angry” let us follow it with the sentence of how that anger created holiness and health and healing.
God says bluntly in Torah, “anochi adonai elohecha, el kanah: I am Adonai, your God, an angry, jealous God.” Anger is holy. Anger is entirely necessary for the health and functioning of individual human beings and the world. To pretend it is not, or to convince ourselves we do not have it, is to leave it festering and burning and dangerous inside of us.
Oh, Adnoai, You who knows anger, You who needed rage in Moses and gave it as a gift to us, help us know how to use it. Helps us act and forgive. Help us learn from each other.
“I GOT ANGRY.” The next sentence is up to you.