Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת פנחס, תש״פ

Parshat Pinhas, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, July 11th, 2020

I Am Angry. Is That Okay?

I certainly still possess my fair share of naivete, but when I was younger and even more naive, I believed that anger was a useless emotion; its only purpose was to spark violence and hurt. And yet, as I followed the news, as I experienced adult relationships, and as I had daily discussions with an often infuriating God, I realized that anger was a natural and sometimes even productive state of being. Anger can inspire us to address a situation; it can even alert us to that gut feeling that something is wrong in the first place. When I express my anger, I show others that I am offended, or that I need help, or that they should be angry too. Lately, between caustic political and social arguments displayed on every aspect of news and social media and my own frustration with lifestyle changes over the past few months, I have been experiencing anger much more often than I feel comfortable with. And I keep reminding myself both that that anger is okay and that it must have its limits. As God has taught me throughout the texts I study each day, anger is only worthwhile if mercy and kindness both inspire and overpower it.

The God of our Torah expresses a whole lot of anger, especially throughout our current book of Numbers. God has expressed anger at the people Israel through snakes, fire, and most recently, plague. And yet, I believe that God knows that even God’s own anger goes too far at times. In the very first two verses of our Parashah, God decrees God’s thanks to Pinhas who השיב את חמתי מעל בני ישראל - who turned my anger away from the children of Israel (25:10-11). In the previous chapter, God had set a plague among the Israelites on account of Israelite men sleeping with Midianite women and being seduced into idol worship. To assuage God’s anger, Pinhas rams a spear into the bellies of an Israelite man and his Midianite consort, and the plague is stopped. As our parashah begins, God is jarred into recognition that his rage could have destroyed the entire nation of Israel if it had gone unchecked. He shows his gratitude to Pinchas, but at the same time, recognizes that Pinchas’ action exhibited anger in too dangerous a fashion, as well. The unlikely hero’s reward from God is a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, which the 19th century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Netziv writes is a blessing for inner peace, a covenant that ties Pinchas to a future without a quick temper or excessive emotional unrest. Anger, for God and for Pinchas, can be effective but disastrous without forethought in action and without an aim towards real peace.

Now is a time of frustration for so many of us, and now is the time to figure out how to channel that. For some, we must go for a run or use that punching bag or go outside and meditate for a few minutes before we can express our feelings in ways that are fully productive. For others of us, it is helpful to write down the words we want to use to speak or write our anger before we send it out to an individual or to the world. And once we are ready to express ourselves, we must take into account whether that expression might hurt the other more than it would help ourselves. We must use our anger sparingly enough for it to have the necessary bite; our compassion must override our rage. And ideally, when we do express rage, whether in word or in action, that expression should be motivated by compassion.

Using and channeling anger is so difficult that every day, the Rabbis teach in the Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Brakhot, God says the following prayer:

May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger.

And may My mercy prevail over My other attributes.

And may I conduct myself towards my children with the

attribute of mercy,

And may I enter before them beyond the letter of the law.

God must make the effort every day not to dispel God’s anger, but rather, to keep it in check. Thus far, as God voices such a prayer every day, even God has not yet achieved that perfect balance of mercy and anger. May we act in God’s image, in our quest to use our own anger towards self-exploration and communal good, and let us make use of God’s prayer for ourselves...

May it be God’s will that our mercy will overcome our anger.

May we avoid violence and embrace dialogue.

And may our mercy prevail over our other attributes

May we decide whether the situation calls for frustration or acceptance, for self-directed anger or for outward-directed compassion.

And may we conduct ourselves towards every person we meet

with the attribute of mercy,

May we seek the comfort of others in our own pain, without abusing our sources of comfort in the process.

And may we go above and beyond what is expected of us, above and beyond the letter of the law.

May we embrace our own power to shape and direct the emotions we experience, constantly striving to be better, just as God does the same. Shabbat Shalom.