Steve was a good accountant, but it was hard to sit in front of a video display screen all day with nothing but numbers before his eyes. One day, when he was particularly tense and squinting, Steve stood up to take a break. He walked over to the water cooler—which was almost empty—and he tilted it to drain the last few drops.
The upside down bottle had not been screwed tightly enough. With a preliminary wobble it lurched off its stand and shattered. A shard cut through Steve’s Brooks Brothers slacks and scraped his leg. Steve was quite squeamish when it came to seeing blood, especially his own, so he started running toward the wash room, however looking back at the thin trail of blood, he failed to open the glass door before going through it so that shattered, lacerating his arm and face, which had him running helter skelter—when he bumped into a post. That didn’t shatter, nor did his skull, but Steve knocked himself unconscious and awoke in the hospital, still panicked.
It took two weeks for Steve to recover, after which he went out to a hardware store and bought the biggest sledgehammer he could find. The first day back in the office, he approached the water cooler with his new hammer and smashed it, then proceeded to hammer the newly replaced glass from the door, and even managed to put a dent in the post before he went to his desk and said, "Well it’s good to get that out of my system!"
Most of us can find enough frustrations, inconveniences and annoyances to keep us angry: long lines, inferior products, late trains, empty water coolers! Each one of these can be an occasion to vent the anger that lives within us.
Some of us can laugh at these irritations of life and even at how we respond those irritations. But then there are times when the cause of our anger isn’t all that small. Rather, we must grapple with a wearisome burden, a case of injustice, a senseless dispute or an unexplained tragedy, such as the horrific car accident that left a seven-year-old black child dead, followed by the retaliatory fatal stabbing of a Hasidic Jewish seminary student in Crown Heights.
We feel justified in being angry and anguished, and we feel a need to direct our untethered emotion at someone or something.
Who’s to Blame?
Some of our rage is aimed at our spouses or our children or co-workers. Others turn that anger inward, which creates bitterness, depression and even physical illness. The Talmud says that "anger in a house is like a worm in a plant" (Sota 3b). It applies to our age when we are eaten from within by suppressed anger.
This was demonstrated at a Yom Kippur service that was sponsored by a Jewish campus group in San Francisco. On the High Holy Days we recite he Avinu Malkenu, a litany in which we beseech God to forgive us for sins of commission and sins of omission. But on that particular Yom Kippur, the congregants went in turn to the bima, reciting poems they had written forgiving God for all that the Almighty had allegedly done to harm them. Under the guise of creativity, these students unabashedly aimed their anger toward God for conditions of life.
If some of us are not comfortable confronting our Creator directly, as these students did, we get angry with his emissary, the Messiah. An article in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin brought this telling report:
Each time the world has faced a catastrophe, Jews have said it was the time the Moshiach—Hebrew for Messiah—would come. But [Rabbi Manis] Friedman insisted the end of the Gulf War is most certainly the time. According to the rabbi, the coming of the Messiah is already behind schedule. "He has disappointed us enough times already. This time he has to come." Of course, if he doesn’t come, "we’ll be angrier at him," [emphasis added] said Friedman. "And when he finally does come, he’ll need to do a lot of explaining."1
The rabbi thinks it appropriate to get mad at the Messiah if he doesn’t do what we want him to do. While that may not be reasonable, it does seem to be human nature.
The Genesis of Anger
We are certainly not the first generation to feel these emotions. The Bible records what may be the earliest example of human anger:
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
"Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him." (Genesis 4:3-8)
Cain was angry at God. Some commentators speculate that Cain’s own attitude fueled his defiant stance.2 Since he was not in a position to translate his anger at God into action against God, he unleashed it on his brother instead. God was not to blame for Cain’s slaying of Abel. Cain’s own deficient obedience toward God set him on the angry path to commit murder.
Like Cain, our anger often has its roots in our very own shortcomings. We look into the mirror of our souls and we don’t like what we see.
Even King David, known as a man "after God’s own heart,"3 had his shortcomings. 2 Samuel recounts this story of him:
The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, ‘There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
"Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."
Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’" (2 Samuel 12::1-10)
Nathan the prophet told this parable to illustrate his point. This great King David had just committed murder in order to take another man’s wife, with whom he had already committed adultery. When the king heard Nathan’s account, the rage he displayed was an indication of the anger he felt toward his own actions. So consumed with fury was David that he called for the death penalty for the alleged rich man, something never required in the Torah for this particular action. The anger David felt toward his own sin was misdirected toward someone else’s supposed wrongdoing.
Cain was angry because his sacrifice was not accepted, but he refused to own up to his sin. Instead, he turned his wrath on his brother. David was angry, but instead of dealing with the evil of his own heart, he vented it on a man who fortunately was only a fictitious character in a story. Students offer to "forgive" God for all the harm he supposedly heaps on them. A rabbi speaks of anger at the Messiah of God who won’t arrive on the rabbi’s time schedule.
The hard reality we don’t want to face is that it is the sin of people—not of God—that leads to the misery of this world. More to the point, it is our own sins, failings, and justifications that so often take us on the path to social and private hell—not the sins of "the other person." Hundreds of years after Cain and King David, the words of a first-century Jewish writer showed that little had changed in this regard:
My dear brothers [and sisters], take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.…What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.…(James 1:19-20; 4:1-2)
Perhaps, we are like Cain and like King David, hardly inclined to accept responsibility for all our actions. Perhaps we don’t see how the "little" defects in our attitudes build up and branch out until we have a forest of problems that frustrate us to the point of misdirecting our anger to God for not "doing something" about the "mess."
But to ask God to "do something" is to invite his action, which we do not really want to see happen. A solution to "the mess" we’ve created is to clean us off of this planet which God created! God’s justice would allow his doing exactly that. After all, who among us has not broken one of his laws? Whether by attitude or action, who has not contributed in some degree to the familial, social, and moral problems of the world?
Indeed, the Jewish Scriptures teach that God at one time did remove virtually all humankind from this planet. While we may know the event of Noah and the ark as a nice story having to do with Noah’s bringing the animals on board his boat two by two, we often overlook the horrific situation that made the building of the ark necessary. God brought about the flood because:
The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them." (Genesis 6:5-7)
As a result, every single person except Noah and his family, drowned in their wickedness.
Yes, the stunning truth is that our sin has caused God to be angry with us. Jewish tradition daily reminds us of this fact when we read the order of service for prayer;
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. 4
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)
Antidote to Anger
In traditional Jewish thought, God is both a God of justice and a God of mercy.
Benjamin Disraeli put it this way: "Justice is truth in action. Grace [or mercy] is beauty in action." 5
In his justice, God would be within his rights to require the punishment of death—eternal separation from him—for our sins against one another, which are ultimately sins against our Creator. Yet in his mercy, God has provided a way in which his righteous anger need not find its fulfillment in such administration as justice might require.
In times past, God’s way was through the offering of sacrifices. The entire sacrificial system of the Torah was built on the notion that the animal sacrifices would substitute for the death of the individual and turn away God’s anger. God’s justice would be met by the death of the animal; his mercy would extend to us because it was the animal, and not we, who died.
This substitutionary principle was also spoken of by the prophet Isaiah in connection with the coming of the Suffering Servant, recognized in rabbinic tradition as the Messiah:
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12)
The next time we get news about a big corporation that has dumped toxic waste in our backyard, or hear about the latest hostage crisis, or fail to get water from the office cooler, we might well be tempted to lash out in anger. We might want to scold our children, yell at our God or smash through a pane of glass. We might want to justify our emotionalism and our misdirected anger with the rationalization that we feel powerless and are just trying to cope.
Instead of merely trying to cope with the wrong that has been done, we might not be so overwhelmed if we begin asking the right questions.
Am I putting the blame for what is wrong at the right doorstep? Do I have the power to effect change, and if not, is such power attainable? Who should really be angry at whom? How should I channel my anger for good to result? And what should I do when I realize that God has provided a solution to the anger I feel? If the answers are not found in Yeshua, then where?
- "Rabbi cites prophecy: war heralds Messiah," The Northern California Bulletin, February 1, 1991.
- He was angry "in jealousy of Abel" (Cohen, A., ed. The Soncino Chumash (London: The Soncino Press, 1983), p. 17 (on Genesis 4:5), giving the view of Sforno.
- 1 Samuel 13:14
- Tahanun prayers include this reading from Psalm 6.
- Feb. 11, 1851 , Disraeli Speech, House of Commons