Launch Sermon Player

Killing Anger.

Thoughts on Parashat Bereshit.

Menachem Mirski

[…] The Eternal approved Abel and his offering, but did not approve Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One then said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Would you not do well to lift it? For if you do not do well – sin crouches at the door; you are the one it craves and yet you can govern it.

[Bereshit 4:4-7]

Why did Cain murder Abel? The Midrash offers us a number of explanations, each of which concerns the rivalry of the brothers and represents a different philosophical reason for it. According to one Midrash, it all boils down to what has caused much strife in families throughout the ages, namely, the division of property and inheritance. Seeing that they were the only two humans around, Cain and Abel decided to divide “ownership” of the world. One would take all the lands and things that grow from it, while the other would take movable objects such as animals and the like. Thus, one became a farmer and the other a shepherd (Bereshit Rabbah 22:7). Another explanation is that they were fighting over a woman. According to the Midrash, both Cain and Abel were born with twin sisters, whom they married. However, Abel was actually born with two sisters, and they fought over who would marry the extra wife. Cain said he was the oldest and thus it was his right, while Abel claimed that since she was born with him, it was his right. Another explanation concerns “theological reasons”. Cain, upon seeing that his offering was not accepted but his brother’s was, said to Abel, “It appears that God isn’t just and shows favoritism.” Replied Abel, “Heaven forbid that it be as you say; rather, the reason why my offering was accepted was because it was better.” Cain, in turn, replied, “It appears that there is no reward and punishment for good or bad.” Said Abel, “Surely the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished.” It was from this quarrel that Cain ended up killing Abel. (Targum Yonatan on Bereshit 4:8).

I will propose here a different answer, which may seem completely trivial: Cain killed Abel, because he became angry and could not control it. This simple answer is suggested in verse 7 of this chapter. The thing is that it is true, as many of the trivial truths are and that’s why scholars and ordinary people reject them, laughing at them because “everyone knows that” and “there is nothing to talk about”.

But is there really nothing to talk about? It is the frustration and anger that flows from it that is one of the reasons why people in the entire world choose and support those who create anti-democratic, totalitarian political systems and this is the first cause of the enormity of evil which later emerges from it. It is anger and lack of control over it that is a direct cause of many crimes, including “hell on earth” created by some human beings for other human beings. Of course, after some time people are looking for its “deeper reasons”, hoping that when they discover them, it will help to remove evil from this world, or at least – not to commit it again. We all also know that constant anger may cause health problems and may even be an immediate cause of death, resulting in stroke etc.

So why not try to deal simply with anger itself, this “ordinary” human tendency? As a global task, it seems to be hopelessly utopian, because it requires a transformation of the universal “human nature”, and this is beyond the capabilities of every mortal. Nevertheless, within ourselves and our close relations with others, we can do a lot in this matter. Let me briefly describe my own concept of how to do it, based on my experiences, attempts, mistakes and reflections.

 

Here is the fundamental assumption: we all experience a constant and subconscious, greater or lesser level of internal anger. Depending on how high it is, we get angry more easily or more often, for various reasons. If its level is really high, we can lose our balance for almost any reason.

There are four steps of overcoming our internal tendency to anger:

  1. Get rid of all rationalizations about anger, like “people get angry sometimes and it is normal”, “everyone gets angry sometimes and it is typical, human feature” etc. It is indeed a statistically “normal” thing, but not a “normatively normal” one. It is possible to live completely without anger, life is better without it and that’s the goal to achieve. As Rashi comments on the verse 7, quoting Talmud (Kiddushin 30b): If you desire to, you can gain the victory over it. Similarly Soforno comments on the same verse: It is within your power to overcome the power of the evil urge thanks to the divine image (tzelem Elohim) with which you have been provided at birth.

Thus, there are no reasonable justifications of anger, they are all just its psychological rationalizations. Also, it is not a trait of someone’s character. Character has nothing to do with it, even though people often see it that way, calling someone by name, like “spitfire” etc. That’s a common mistake and yet another rationalization for anger.

I believe that this human tendency is not something innate, but since it is universal, people believe that it is, in fact, innate. Little children also express anger, but to my knowledge it is a direct result of the frustrations they encounter. Only later, as a result of the accumulation of various negative experiences, people acquire a permanent tendency to anger. This process can also begin at any later stage of life, it is not closely related to the period of childhood and adolescence.

  1. Analyze all the cases in which you get angry, each one separately. Ask yourself what things in the world or in the behavior of others makes you angry etc. Work on all these phenomena separately. I used to get angry when people were patronizing towards me, especially if they knew very little about me and my life. Political issues made me angry too. Try to isolate yourself from all these factors or, if you can’t do it, work on reactions to them, because they all increase your subconscious level of anger. I first changed my reactions to patronizing others, from anger to laughter. Now I don’t even laugh, I’m completely indifferent to it.
  2. Anger comes from frustrations – that’s the commonly known and accepted psychological fact. Every little frustration increases the level of your internal anger, contributes to your reactions and to the possibility of overreacting. These can be just little things, but if they happen regularly, they contribute to your constant, subconscious anger. It can be something more serious like a bad financial situation, a longer period of loneliness, long-lasting stress, lack of relax or something very little and seemingly irrelevant, but constant. Try to eliminate all the frustrations in any (morally acceptable) way you can.
  3. The last step that is the most powerful tool to fight anger: gratitude. The opposite of anger is not peace, but gratitude. Thus, develop in yourself an attitude of gratitude for every little thing in your life. For every moment of life, every conversation with another human being, every little gesture and good deed. Try to be grateful also for negative, unpleasant experiences, because you have already found out, at least a few times, that you saw something good in them after some time. This will help to balance all your anger effectively and may annihilate feelings of frustration: if you are feeling grateful at every moment of your life, there is no space neither for frustration nor for anger in it. If any anger appears in you then, it will be much easier to silence it, before even expressing it.

 

All those steps can help you to become indifferent to anger expressed by other people: you will be much less affected by it. It worked in my case and it may work in yours as well.

 

I also wrote a song about it. It will be published in a month or two.

So why then did Cain murder Abel? Because he lacked gratitude to God for everything he received from Him.

 

 

Shabbat shalom!

 

 

 

 

 

Menachem Mirski

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,