For a long time Rabbi Mordechai of Neshchiz longed for a tallit katan made of cloth from Eretz Yisrael. When the special fine wool finally arrived, he asked one of his favorite students to honor him by sewing for him a tallit katan. The student agreed. But unfortunately the student accidentally folded the cloth twice and instead of one neckhole he cut two, creating a tear that could not be repaired. The student was mortified about this, and feared that his teacher would be angry with him.
But Rabbi Mordechai did not reprimand his pupil, and did not even show anger toward him. Just the opposite. He smiled at him and said, “Good job, my son! You carried out the task according to Jewish law. I really need two pairs of the tallit katan. One to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit katan, and the other to put Reb Mordechai to the test, to see if he can overcome his yetzer hara (evil inclination) to get angry.”
It’s a great story. Though I’m not sure how well the great Rebbe of Neshchiz would fare in Tishrei 5781 in the USA.
This week alone we have had to contend with COVID-19 and the destructiveness of partisan politics in fighting it. We have been faced with brothers and sisters publicly defaming Torah and Klal Yisrael by burning masks in NY. And then needing to defend our values and community from the anti-semitism such insanity has spawned. We are constantly asked to choose sides with less and less nuance. The echo-chambers are getting tighter and louder, and the debates between those vying to lead this country are not safe for our children to watch (or adults, to be fair.)
Indeed, I think we’re are more than justified in finding much to by angry about.
But there is a cost to our anger. And there are loose ends on the other side of our righteous indignation. We are rightfully frustrated. We are justifiably upset. We are appropriately angry. But that also means we are frustrated, upset and angry. Where do these emotions lead? What lies on the other side of these honorable but undeniably negative emotions?
One thing is certain: Our emotions do not appear to change the actions of those who are responsible for these circumstances. We are not winning over the perpetrators to our side. Perhaps there are fence-sitters and bystanders that might be swayed. Perhaps by registering our frustrations we might absolve ourself of any associations with these rabble rousers and trouble makers. But these options are woefully insufficient vents for the negativity we generate and harbor.
Most often, we channel our frustrations in one of two ways: inside or outside. Channeling inside slowly eats away at our innocence and optimism. Given enough time, righteous indignation will transform even the most bright eyed dreamer into a cynic. Hope is lost to sadness and ideals crash on the shores of realism. We, sadly, call this "maturity".
Channeling the frustrations outwards has the advantage of keeping our dreams intact. The cost, however, is the growing resentment that the world will "never get it". The big "they" will never understand. Sarcasm becomes the new humor, and people stop listening to our ideas; knowing that their ideas and ideals will only be belittled in contrast.
So what is there left to do? Not have an opinion? Not protest the evils in the world? I do not think the Master of the World wants us to lobotomize ourselves into dim-witted shoulder shrugging.
Here are three suggestions:
1.Protest is not the same as Anger
Consider the following story:
A number of years ago, a certain bus arrived in the Bnei Brak terminal after Yom Tov. The terminal was packed with people eager to get back home to Jerusalem with the 401 bus. The bus was late. Kids were crying. Everyone was cranky and irritable.
A bus arrived at the terminal door with number 301 to a different city. After five minutes, a few people approached the bus driver and begged him to change the number to 401 and take them to Jerusalem.
The bus driver told them. "I am sorry but if I change my bus number, I risk losing my job, getting a fine, etc."
After a few minutes, people asked him again and pleaded with him.
The bus driver accepted and everyone quickly boarded the bus, thanking and lauding the heroic bus driver.
When the bus neared Jerusalem, one person asked the bus driver: "aren't you afraid of losing your job, your parnassah, getting a fine?"
The bus driver replied: "I'll tell you the truth. I really am the 401 bus. If I had come to the bus terminal as a 401, everyone would have been cranky and angry throughout the trip. But now, I am treated like a hero".
The bus driver understood - and exploited - the greatest secret of anger and frustration: They are, at their core, a response to mismatched expectations. Rebbe Nachman explains (שיחות הר״ן מב):
עצבות הוא כמו מי שהוא בכעס וברוגז כמו שמתרעם ומתלונן עליו יתברך חס ושלום על שאינו עושה לו רצונו
...anger and rage are a complaint against God for not fulfilling one’s wishes.
We get angry because we feel that the world should be the way we think it should be. And what will be if it isn't?! We are annoyed and upset.
We have transformed the essential obligation of calling out injustice into an emotion rather than an Avoda. The need to protest is not a license to feel anger, but rather a charge to display anger.
This distinction is well known to every good parent.
2.Don't Channel the Anger In or Out. Send it Up.
But what should we do if despite all attempts, we still get angry? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that our custom of saying Hoshanos throughout Sukkos is the staging of a formal protest to Hashem against the Yetzer Hara. “HoShana” literally means: “Save us from this!” We usually think we need saving from hurricanes, fools, anti-semites and stock market crashes. But truthfully, we need far more saving from the negativity of our broken thoughts and minds.
In the deepest sense, all of our tefillos on Sukkos are attempts to lift our problems to Hashem. At the very least, we should protest upwards as much as we protest outwards.
3. Ask: Where Does This Emotion Take Me?
Social media has yet to create an Emoji for the reaction that describes: “I would like to display my sincere displeasure. But really, I’m ok, and my world will continue with Simcha and Emuna.”
Chazal tell us that during Sukkos, we would bring 70 korbanos on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. In essence, the Jewish people in those years were a fulfillment of the promise that Hashem gave to Avraham:
וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה - And through you all families of the earth will be blessed.
Being a light of wisdom unto the nations comes later. Our first concern should be “What is my presence contributing”. This is a heavy charge. It asks us to consider: Am I a source of Bracha for the world, or God forbid the opposite?
We should take note of the emotions we are feeling and feeding. It becomes simple to see that while the source might be nobly founded, this does not guarantee that it leads us to place we want to be.
If we cannot hold back our anger from taking root, and we cannot channel it into a Tefillah, then, in my my humble opinion, we should reconsider the righteousness of our indignation. Perhaps it’s not so righteous after all...
The unique Avoda of this Chag is Joy - Simcha. The Gra explains (סוף אבן שלמה פרק יא) that the Simcha we are attempting to feel now is borrowed from the world of clarity yet to come. But if we want it, if we work on it, we can taste a piece of that now. Hashem should help us to because epicenters of that Simcha. And that despite the fissures and frustrations we should become a source of Bracha.