In 2012, Eliana was 2 months old and I was still on maternity leave over Yom Kippur. This allowed my husband Gary one of his last opportunities to be child free on Yom Kippur, and he was given the honour of being one of the ‘saganim’ at his shul. A sagan is a supporter to the service leader – there are usually two who stand on each side of the leader, and are there to step in and continue the prayers should the service leader need a break or become ill. It was neilah, the last leg of a long day of fasting and praying, and the end was in sight. It was at this point that a phone rang in the shul (this might be a good moment to check your phones are on silent J). Rather than being silenced, it was answered, in the shul, and there was much tutting and askance glances. As if this weren’t awkward enough, it happened, with the same phone, twice more during neilah. On the third occasion, Gary saw red. He turned around, and angrily exclaimed ‘Turn it off or take it outside!’.
I suspect many of us would have reacted similarly. Our anger at the selfishness of not only letting your phone ring three times, but of nonchalantly answering it in the middle of the yom kippur service would seem totally normal and justified. Accidents happen once, but three times? However the rabbi did not turn to chastise the phone answerer. He turned to Gary and told him off instead! ‘Anger is a grave sin my friend’ he said. ‘Don’t allow it to break your teshuvah now’.
There is a lot we might feel angry about from the year that has just closed. Personally, nationally and globally. And I feel we are justified in such anger – born perhaps of frustration, from grief, from exhaustion and from injustice. This coming Shabbat we will see that it is Moses anger that ultimately prevents him from entering the Promised land – and yet his anger is very understandable and justifiable. He kills a slave master in anger at the way the slave is being beaten; he is fighting a deep injustice. And when he hits the rock instead of speaking to it as commanded to by God, I feel a huge amount of sympathy for him. Although my default position is jolly, even I would struggle with anger when beset by endless negativity, complaining and gripes when I am working hard to make things good. But the Torah is, according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, using Moses’ example as a moment of learning – many of us lash out when angry, but Torah asks that we use words to speak, rather than hitting out or exploding with rage.
The other great Moses of our tradition, Moses Maimonides (also known as Rambam)– a 12th Century philosopher, rabbi and medical doctor, was himself prone to some pretty serious grumpiness. Reading his letters to those who sent him questions, he quite often comes across as short-tempered and annoyed (though of course tone is easy to misread). In his legal commentaries, Maimonides writes that one should be careful to control one’s temper; however, he also warns that a person should not become so indifferent to what others do that they become like a corpse, incapable of feeling. As an Aristotelean Philosopher, its possible Maimonides was responding to thinkers such as the 1st century Seneca who argued that humans should never show anger and should be able to control themselves no matter the provocation. Rambam takes a more balanced approach. He permits anger only when the matter is serious enough to really justify it, and if the anger will prevent the issue from reoccurring.
Now I’m not a psychologist, but it does seem to make sense that bottled up negative emotions, whether of grief, resentment, anger, or any number of other things, will ultimately turn toxic and poisonous if left to fester. This for me is why the Jewish rituals of mourning are so compelling – they force us to face the reality before us, give us permission to really feel it, and thus, usually, help us move beyond them into living once again. And at Yizkor and on Yahrzeits we are given permission to publicly revisit this grief. Similarly Maimonides is allowing for anger when expressed appropriately and with good cause. Anger left unexpressed (something we Brits can be very good at) can be dangerous, just as the anger which is allowed to let rip without control is.
The Torah tries to make it simple for us in Leviticus (19:17) ‘Do not hate one another in your heart’. We know this isn’t simple though. The small resentments we harbor can so easily grow into hatred, into anger at the slights and hurts caused to us. There are of course larger pains we will feel anger for too. It is easy to say ‘Do not hate one another’ – it is much harder to let our hatred and anger diminish. And for some, this will not be the year they are ready to let the anger or hate go, such is the injustice or pain they have suffered. While we seek forgiveness on Yom Kippur we are also empowered to offer forgiveness. But I know I hold onto old hurts and cause myself more harm than I do the person who wronged me.
I had a remarkable experience of this this week though. On Sunday morning, my phone beeped with a facebook message request. This meant it was coming from someone I am not already friends with, and I would have to actively accept their message. It was from a woman I went to school with. We were friends of sorts, partly because our parents were through shul. But ultimately, she became a bully who manipulated me and took advantage of my friendship. Facebook regularly suggests her as a friend I might want to connect with, and until this week I have not felt at all interested. Then came her message. I have never received a message of such sincere teshuvah – repentance and return. She was explicit in what she had done, tried to explain the root causes of some of it, but didn’t attempt to avert blame or excuse herself. She wrote ‘I am filled with guilt and shame at the way I treated you (and many others, to be honest)’. Just reading these words I felt something physically shift in me. This woman has not been the only bully I have experienced in life, yet somehow her apology and self-knowledge has helped dislodge something I was carrying around that was about far more than her. I have known for some time that the resentment and anger I carry for some of my bullies was hurting me far more than them, but I haven’t known how to make the effort or time to shift it.
I finished school 23 years ago, and have been in one way or another carrying the anger of a teenager who cannot understand why her kindness is met with cruelty. This week I discovered the simple fact that someone who had been part of that cruelty, had carried it too, and just the fact that she had known I was hurt has helped.
Last year, in lock down, I allowed anger to get the best of me too often. Trying to juggle a demanding job, home school two different year groups, and feel that the house wasn’t dangerously messy and dirty are my excuses. Ultimately I failed, and I know my family saw parts of me that I now feel huge shame about. When one is angry at the situation they are in, it is those around them that suffer. This was true for my bully, and it was true for me in lockdown. I feel that I failed in the Maimonidean assessment of justified anger.
What might justified anger look like today? I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles called ‘Outraged’. The book grew out of an article she published in 2018 entitled ‘As a black, gay woman I have to be selective in my outrage. So should you’. Dotty is a Radio 1 host and a rapper, and in her book she argues that we are collectively so easily led to outrage over issues that are easy to shout about, that we are too distracted to notice the things that we really should be horrified by. For example, she interviews the American Rachel Dolezal, who Dotty had herself ridiculed when it emerged she was a white woman presenting herself to the world as a Black activist. The mob outrage to this extreme version of cultural appropriation has left Dolezal impoverished and embattled (though I don’t get the impression she is particularly remorseful). Now Ashley Charles doesn’t try and justify the black face Dolezal pulled off for so many years, but she does wonder how this was a worldwide story for so long. Meanwhile in the same week this story broke, a shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, by a Neo Nazi targeting the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left 9 dead, was gone from the media cycles and our online “outrage radars“ within a few days.
Anger, particularly on social media, can be used, Charles argues, as a distraction from what we should really be outraged by. And of course our anger is often misdirected. I wasn’t really angry at my children and their mess, I was angry at the situation, the exhaustion and the death and the huge demands being placed on all of us, and they bore the brunt of this. I suspect many of us are carrying emotional baggage from the last 18 months, let alone all the bags we had already stuffed before the pandemic hit, and we need places to be able to unpack, or we will find ourselves in crisis.
According to Jewish comedienne turned Cognitive Therapist Ruby Wax, anger and rage are important emotions in our evolutionary development – she says ‘we needed rage to frighten off the enemy. We didn’t turn it on ourselves back then’. In conversation with Neuroscientist Ash Ranpura, Ruby explores the different impact of our positive and negative emotions. Ranpura explains:
“Emotional pain activates the same centres in the brain as physical pain. When you have an emotional sense of suffering, your brain treats that the same as a bodily injury. […] the body and brain respond a lot to negative events but they respond less to happiness. It’s too bad, because when you’re happy you tend not to notice, but when you’re injured you can’t think about anything else”.
Our emotions whether for good or bad, are there to help us navigate the world. And Judaism has for millennia created and evolved rituals to help give us places to hold and process and express those emotions, whether of grief or joy. Much of that has been taken away from us over the last 18 months, and as it slowly returns, the uncertainty and change may leave us continuing to harbor emotions, unsure where to put them.
Our anger is easily misdirected, easily unleashed. It may also be justified. But it is harder to reign it back it in, particularly in a world where we can so easily vent online, leaving our words to linger for so much longer than if we had left them hanging in the air face to face. For the next 25 hours we will reflect on various gates; gates of prayer, gates of repentance or teshuvah, and there are said to be multiple gates to pass through to come close to the Source of all life. The late great Nelson Mandela wrote about his experience of leaving Robben Island “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Letting go of our anger is not as easy as it sounds here, and for many of us it will take many Yom Kippurim and hard work to do it. But ultimately it is for our benefit that these structures exist, that we are reminded of the work on an annual basis, and that we are given the tools of Teshuvah – return, Tzedakah, righteous giving, and Tefillah, prayer, to try and do some of the fixing. Not everything can be fixed today. Not everything can be forgiven in the next 25 hours. But perhaps in giving us time and space to articulate some of our pain, our rage, our loss, we can begin dealing with it better in the year to come. There is so much in the world with which we might justly feel angry, and this anger can, as Ashley Charles fascinating book shows, be used for positive change if we would only channel it towards the true injustices of the world, and allow ourselves to let the small things slide. As she writes at the end of her book “We don’t need to care less; we just need to care better. Because if we persued severe social injustices as fervently as we did every insignificant faux pas that wafts under our noses, our communities would be far better places”.
Through Covid and my first 18 months here as your Rabbi, I have discovered that our community is in fact a fantastic place. We have held difficult conversations together where people have been respectful and listened to those they utterly disagree with. We have worked hard to hold the pain and anger of grief even when the rituals we would normally offer were taken away from us. And yet despite this, we know there is so much that emotionally we are all still holding. The journey back from a Pandemic is not only about our physical health, but about our mental health, and about standing at the gates of freedom, while knowing we need to somehow let go of the bitterness and anger, as Mandela remarkably did.
The journey of the next day that we embark on tonight may raise difficult parts of ourselves, but we are asked to take this time so that we can be present with the complexities of being human, and make the most of who we might be in the coming year.
There is still much that is uncertain. But we are here as a community for the expected and for the unexpected. Our tradition gives us tools to both process our emotions, and to direct them towards doing good collectively. I do not know where we will have walked by this time next year, but I hope it will be that we have continued to walk together to support one another, to process the world and our responses to it together, and to work to leave the world better than we found it.
I would like to offer a blessing written by American Rabbi Elliot Kukla, one that brings me comfort when I am less than I would wish myself to be:
Blessed is the Eternal who creates each of us whole, and none of us perfect.
May we each be blessed with the ability to be wholly ourselves in the coming year, and the patience to deal with our imperfections, and those of others, with kindness and understanding.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah
 Words that hurt words that heal 1996 p.73
 Mishneh Torah The Laws of Personality Development 1:4 (Hilchot De’ot)
 Ouraged, Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles 2020 p.22
 How to Be Human: The Manual, Ruby Wax, 2018 p. 48
 Ibid. p.55