It’s been said that Judaism is a religion of a thousand doors; there are so many ways to engage with our tradition. Through most of my adult life, my Judaism focused mainly on the more intellectual aspects of our tradition; that was always my natural habitat, if you will. But, as many of you may have noticed, over the past few years, I’ve become more and more engaged with 2 very different realms of Judaism—that of Jewish Mindfulness spirituality, and also of Social Justice.
And, as I’ve gotten more involved with both of those worlds, I’ve begun to notice a kind of dissonance or tension between them, almost as if they are two magnetic poles, each pulling me in a different direction. One of them, spirituality, constantly pushes me towards kindness, gentleness, and peace. The other, Social Justice, constantly seems to be pushing me towards anger.
Now, I understand that not everyone sees the world and its injustices the same way I do. We all have different ideas about what is and isn’t just in our world. But, I suspect that we actually pretty much all agree in one important way: it’s probably fairly close to universal to say that injustice makes us angry. Whatever you find to be unfair and unjust most likely stokes whatever rage you have smoldering inside of you. Me, too.
And so, I sit in meditation, or I read a book about mindfulness and spirituality, and I am immersed in a beautiful desire to be peaceful, to be loving, to be kind. And then, I open up Facebook, or read the news, and I am overwhelmed with frustration, and often with rage. And, the truth is, that rage almost always feels justified. More than just justified, my anger feels authentic; it feels honest. Who can look at all of the injustices in our world and not be angry?
So, yes, my anger at injustice is honest. Maybe what’s more important, though, is that my anger often feels useful. It would be so easy, it would sound so enlightened, for me to stand here today and claim that anger is never productive. That’s simply not true. In part, anger can serve as a kind of built in alert system. My anger is often my deepest self’s way of directing my attention towards something which needs addressing. Anger is our soul telling us that this – whatever this is – simply isn’t OK. And, that roiling that we feel is an unignorable beacon, telling us that we have to do something—anything—about it. It’s like a hand jerking back from a hot pan; it’s our body’s way of telling us that something is deeply wrong. “Righteous anger” is so often used as a pejorative. It isn’t, always. Righteous anger is a real thing.
Just ask the Prophets. I’m not sure how much of this comes through when we read their words in synagogue, but these men were livid, and they were not holding back. Our Haftarah this morning was from Isaiah, and it’s dripping with fury:
Yes, they seek Me daily, as though eager to learn My ways—as if they were a nation that does what is right, and has not abandoned God’s law…Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast—a day worthy of Adonai?”
His words are not polite, and they are not pleasant. They are words of disgust and rage at what he sees around him. But yet, they are holy words. They are our holy words. So, yes, anger can be holy.
And anger is also, at times, motivating. In a world where most of us are so busy, and overwhelmed, and distracted, a sense of rage can inspire us. It can drive us to engage in the hard work that would almost always be easier to avoid. And, if I’m being truthful, I also see that anger can sometimes be inspiring to others. It’s much easier to captivate an audience with fiery speeches than with peaceful, gentle, soothing words. Just ask those prophets. As someone who often speaks publicly, often about issues concerning justice, this part matters to me. When I’m trying to get people to care, when I’m trying to get people to act, anger is a powerful lever to lean on. So no, anger isn’t all bad. It most certainly has its virtues.
What we also have to remember, though, is that anger can be terribly toxic. Anger can be unbelievably destructive. It’s destructive to those around us, and to our relationships with them. And, it can be so immensely damaging to ourselves. Unhealthy amounts of anger have been shown to put us at greater risk of heart attack and stroke, to weaken our immune system, and our lungs. It can increase depression and anxiety, too. There’s a story of a person who was granted a single wish by some magical being. “But,” this wish-giver warned, “whatever you wish on yourself will be granted, doubled, to your worst enemy.” “Fine,” they said. “Poke out one of my eyes.” We get so caught up in wanting someone else to hurt, that we often don’t realize the damage that we’re doing to ourselves in the process. That’s the danger of anger – it might be powerful, but it’s indiscriminate. It often can’t be aimed, and often can’t be contained.
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks a great deal about anger, and about our relationship to it, the way we handle it. So often, we talk about anger as a powerful emotion which must be released, lest it build up and explode. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the pressure cooker metaphor for emotions like anger. It seems so apt, so accurate. What Hanh points out is that as good as that sounds, the actual experience of letting our anger out is often quite different. Rather than dissipating once expressed, anger often multiplies. Who here hasn’t had the experience of starting to vent some anger, and then finding ourselves hearing our own voices rise as we agree with ourselves? That primal rage can feel so pure, that we go back to it, think about it, chew on it, perfect it, helping it spiral up and up until it takes over, and then leaves us exhausted, and inert. Sure, giving free reign to our anger like that can be motivating and energizing in the short term. But, long-term, it just guts us. It’s exhausting. It’s like an energy drink – brief bursts of passion, followed by a long, hard crash. As tempting as it is to rely on, anger just won’t get us where we want to go. Where we need to go.
I want to be as clear as I can be: I am not telling myself, and I am certainly not telling anyone here, not to feel anger. Feeling anger is, indeed, sometimes the appropriate response to seeing something wrong in the world. Feeling anger is, I believe, part of being human. It’s inevitable. But, there is a difference between acting on that anger, and acting with that anger. There’s a difference between acting in response to it, and acting in a way which reflects and embodies it. Between using our anger, and being used, and controlled, by it. There is a difference, an enormous difference, between lashing out with hatred and vitriol on the one hand, and acting forcefully, with passion, and with conviction, on the other. And, although it may be more subtle, I believe that there is a profound difference between acting based on our hate for the oppressor, as opposed to our love for the oppressed. One degrades us, the other ennobles.
I think that this is what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about with his famous quote, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” It isn’t that King didn’t feel rage or hatred. Of course he did; how could he not have? If you read anything more than a convenient pull-quote from him, you’ll see quite clearly that he was very angry at much of the world, and many of the people in it. So no, he most certainly did not refuse to feel anger. And it’s not even that he refused to express that anger. What he did was refuse to let those violent, tempting, destructive impulses take over. He refused to let them corrupt him.
One of the great benefits of the kind of Mindfulness I’ve tried to practice over the years is that it gives us a way to observe ourselves, and to bring a kind of thoughtful curiosity to our own inner lives. And something which I have noticed, maybe as consistently and profoundly as anything, is how different I am when I choose a more careful, even loving response, as opposed to giving in to my anger. When I speak in careful, loving ways, even when I have something hard or provocative to say, quite simply, I like myself more. In those moments, I am more satisfied, prouder, of who I am then when the nastiness comes out. I imagine that, if I was someone else, I’d rather spend time with, rather learn from, that less angry version of myself than that other guy. And, noticing that makes me want to be more careful and thoughtful and deliberate about how I speak, and about how I act.
But, we still act. Being loving and kind does not mean being passive, and it does not mean being a doormat. Acting with love does not mean allowing anyone to do anything, and it most certainly does not mean refusing to call out people who are in the wrong, or not insisting on consequences for them. Peacefulness is not the same as indifference or unresponsiveness. Peace and love and kindness mean acting out of our deepest sense of love – love for every human being, and our love for peace. It means taking seriously our claim that every person — every person, even the people who act the worst, even the people whom we hate the most — each and every one is created betzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Yes, it’s true that not just the best people, but even the worst people in the world, and every single person in between the best and the worst, are all created in God’s image. Either everyone is created in God’s image, or no one is. I am convinced that when we forget this, we lose a tiny bit of our own humanity. Maybe not so tiny, actually.
So, no, I’m not talking about standing by dispassionately, or reacting to every wrong with an empty, “live and let live.” I’m talking about making a deliberate decision to act, as often and consistently as possible, in a way which, as much as possible, brings more love and more peace into the world. Isn’t that what we want? A world with more peace? More love? There might be times when screaming with rage will ultimately result in making our world a more peaceful place. There really might be. But, those times are probably far rarer than we’d like to admit, especially when we’re filled with that righteous rage. More often than not, anger released on the world results in less peace, not more. Less love, not more.
King was right – only light can drive out the darkness, and only love can drive out the hate.
I’m sorry to repeat myself here, but I want to be as clear as possible. I understand that all of this talk about love over anger can sound facile, like a bad greeting card. “Can’t we all just love each other?” “Let’s just hug it out.” No. I’m not talking about a naïve, childlike desire for everything to be all right, all of the time. Again—anger is real, and it is valid. It must not be denied or suppressed.
What I’m talking about is thinking seriously, deeply, about how we can build the world that we dream of. It’s not easy, and frankly, it’s not always pleasant. Every time I resist the urge to tell someone off, to scream at them in the most hateful way imaginable, every time I don’t hit send on that perfect email or Facebook comment which would so deliciously, embarrassingly put someone in their place, every time I keep myself from lashing out, rather than responding strongly, carefully, it costs me something. Every time. It hurts a little, and it can get exhausting. That’s why I still sometimes fail. It’s so damn hard.
So, no, it’s not easy, but what it is, is strong. Acting out of love, acting with love, and with kindness, is never a sign of weakness, but rather one of power.
That, in the end, is what Isaiah called us to do. To act. He wasn’t just yelling at us. He wasn’t just railing at our hypocrisy. He was begging us to see the world, in all of its pain, in all of its infuriating brokenness, and do something about it. He said:
Is this not the fast I desire—to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and take the homeless poor into your home…?
May we listen to those ancient words, born of anger. May we see the world as it is, and may what we see stoke the fire that is within us. And then, may we use that fire to create a great light in the world.
This sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur, 5783