Pharaoh’s Anger

In a powerful condemnation of anger, our sages proclaim that anger is tantamount to idol worship.

There is no question that during fits of temper one can take leave of his senses and do stupid, even violent, things. But how is it equivalent to idolatry, which denies the oneness of G‑d?

When Moses demanded that Pharaoh set the Hebrews free, Pharaoh flew into a rage. He was convinced that the Jews were agitating for freedom because their burden was too light, leaving them too much time to think. In truth, they were thinking of freedom because their burden was too heavy; they had too little time. Increasing their burden would only exacerbate their desire for freedom, especially since Moses’ arrival gave them cause for hope.

Had Pharaoh thought it through carefully, he might have discerned another point of view. He might have noted that a desire for freedom was understandable among overworked slaves, and that easing their burden was a wise idea. Had he reflected further, he might have concluded that it wasn’t in Egypt’s long-term interest to subjugate a growing, disenfranchised people. Had he been completely objective, he might have actually considered the matter from the slaves’ point of view. His heart might have been touched by the plight of a suffering nation, and he might have been moved to ease their burden.

But because he was angry, he did none of the above. Instead, his reasoning was clouded by one overarching thought: The Jews, a people I am accustomed to dehumanizing and enslaving, have the audacity to demand a reprieve. They actually think they have rights.

Our Anger

Does any of this sound familiar? Is this not the typical mindset of anger? Perfectly rational interpretations of motive and consequence are breezily dismissed in favor of the narrative that offends us most. We follow this flawed narrative to an even more flawed conclusion, and imagine terrible consequences if we don’t respond to the perceived provocation. We reject every perspective but one: This was wrong, and I must avenge it.

A story is told of a host who discovered that his guest was a landsman (an émigré from the same hometown). All through dinner the host inquired after the wellbeing of the people he knew from home, but whenever he brought up a name, the visitor replied that the fellow had died. Dismayed, the host asked why so many people had died since his last visit. “Listen,” replied the guest, “when I’m eating, everyone else may as well be dead. Let me finish eating; then I’ll tell you all about them.”

We behave similarly when we are angry. There are a hundred aspects to the story, but when we are angry, they may as well not exist. We behave as if the only salient piece of the story is the part that angered us. We are perfectly capable of objective analysis—when something happens to others. When it is personal, we lose all objectivity. We isolate one facet and ignore the rest.

Universal Symmetry

Your good friend did something hurtful. But he had a reason. He has been your friend for many years. He hasn’t changed, and is still your friend. He regrets it. He, or someone else, might in fact benefit from what he did. Even you might benefit, or at least not be terribly harmed, by what he did. All these facts are true, and when you calm down and think about it, you will consider them all. But when you stop thinking and let your feelings reign, one feeling dominates. You find yourself myopically focused on the fact that he hurt you.

In truth, all aspects of the story are integrated with the one we choose to isolate. None would have existed if any one of them were missing. That is the way our universe works. On the surface, it appears as if each element stands alone and has no relation to the others. But we know better. An inner rhythm flows through the universe. Everything is interconnected. We know this is true on an atomic level; even on the macro level, the universe enjoys a symbiotic nature and delicate balance that makes each element dependent on all others.

The universe was created by G‑d with a single burst of creative power. Although G‑d’s infinite light manifests differently in each element of creation, the universe pulsates with that unifying divine energy. Every minute detail is part of G‑d’s cosmic blueprint, integral to the whole. At root, it is all one.

Imagine a single light that bursts into endless variations of colors when filtered through a kaleidoscope. Each color emerges from the single light, which is why they are all connected—each is an integral part of the others. Yet if you shut out every brilliant color and isolate only the most garish one, you are ruining the beauty of that color. Rather than being part of a brilliant whole, you reduced it to a single garish color.

Idol Worship

This is what we do when we fly off the handle in a fit of rage. We erase every dimension of the situation, and isolate one infuriating part. We deny the intricate pattern of brilliant symmetry woven by G‑d, and embrace only one side of the story.

So long as we review the matter in the privacy of our thoughts, we are capable of considering all aspects of the story. In fact, we often arrive at conclusions that include multiple factors. For example, we might conclude that the friend still loves us, didn’t mean to hurt us, and is sorry that he did, but that we still resent what happened. This is a merging of the story’s many aspects, which underscores its synthesis.

But once we allow our emotions to overtake us, it is difficult to moderate our anger with love. This is even more accentuated when we express our anger verbally. At that point we commit ourselves to a single interpretation of the event, which excludes all others. When we act on it, we are even further invested in this approach.

A pattern emerges. The more we introspect, the more we discern a common theme among the conflicting aspects of the story. The more we apply and express our feelings, the more particular our feelings become. This tells us that at our quintessence we are closely related to the Creator’s perspective, to the unity that incorporates all elements of a story. But when we become invested in our physical and emotional reality, we lose touch with that unifying truth.

This is perhaps what our sages meant when they defined anger as a form of idol worship. Just as the idol worshippers ignore the hand of G‑d and focus myopically on what is before them, so do we in bouts of anger.

Therapists advise us to remove ourselves from a provoking situation in order to calm down, assess the matter from all angles and restore peace. But it is not just a therapeutic experience. It is a religious experience. When we take the time to think things through, we find the G‑dly perspective. Without even realizing it, we uncover the cosmic blueprint of the event.

You see, G‑d isn’t found only in sacred tomes and holy texts. G‑d is found in every element of the universe. When you step away from anger, you find interconnectivity. And in the process, you find G‑d.

This essay is based on a treatise by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi on “Kegavna,” a paragraph from the Zohar included by many in the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat.