By Rabbi Philip Graubart
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a Muslim colleague — an imam — who was collecting signatures from other clergy for a statement regarding the YouTube video and the recent rioting against American embassies. I would very much have liked to sign the statement. I respect the imam and his work, and in the past, I’ve praised the lawful peacefulness of our local Islamic community and condemned how its members are often unfairly blamed for the actions of other Muslims. But I couldn’t sign the statement.
For one thing, the letter condemns the anti-Islamic video first, before condemning the violence. For me, religious violence is a far greater threat both to the world, and to our local community, than a mocking video. But my biggest objection was to this line: “We can understand the anger that faithful Muslims feel, but we cannot justify the violent response resulting in loss of life and destruction of property.” I stared at that sentence for a long time, trying to figure out why it so disturbed me. I realized I don’t really “understand” the anger Muslims feel. Jews, after all, face humiliating insults every day from many newspapers in the world, particularly the Arab world — but I would always counsel against anger. I certainly wouldn’t “understand” it, since the word “understand” comes perilously close to meaning sympathize, or justify.
As it happens, a recent Torah reading teaches some powerful lessons on anger. After God rejects Cain’s sacrifice, instead favoring his brother Abel’s, God asks Cain one of those biblical questions I often suggest we take out of context, and ask ourselves: Lamah kharah lecha — “Why are you angry?” Reading the story again, I realize the question goes deeper. God doesn’t merely ask “Why are you angry?” God continues: “Why has your face fallen?” Cain’s anger collapses his personality. He descends into a rage, ultimately murdering his brother. The commentator Sforno writes that it wasn’t merely God’s rejection that triggered the murderous rage. It was also “jealousy;” Cain felt humiliated that his younger brother upstaged him. He responded with violence.
This reminds me of another biblical story we recently chanted, where God asks a similar question to Jonah. After God forgives the Ninevites, the prophet suffers a Cain-like collapse. God asks him Ha’heitev kharah lecha — “Are you greatly angry?” Jonah’s response indicates that his rage has become just as destructive as Cain’s. He replies Kharah li ad mavet — “I’m so angry, I could die.” And why is Jonah so angry? There are two obvious reasons. One: unfairness; why should the Ninevites get away with a generation of sin simply because they repent? It’s a question children often ask me: why should someone avoid a punishment just by saying sorry? But it’s the humiliation which probably triggers the more damaging anger. Jonah, in five quick words, had predicted the destruction of Nineveh. God saves the city but turns Jonah into a liar, or a fraud. This loss of face provokes a suicidal spiral. So both Jonah and Cain lose themselves in their anger — Jonah turns inward and becomes self-destructive, while Cain murders his brother. And God asks them why — a question that reverberates through the millennium.
Because, in fact, God offers Cain a solution, with two words: Teitiv, se’et — “Improve yourself (Rashi comments: ‘improve your deeds’) and you’ll lift yourself up.” In other words, respond to humiliation by steadily improving your own behavior, by creating a better world, a better life. Don’t fall into the snare that anger sets for us. It too easily slides into a personality shattering rage. Humiliation is part of life, God instructs Cain, an early human being. So is unfairness. To respond with rage is to lose yourself and threaten the world around you.
There’s yet another famous Jewish story where a potential convert approaches the sage Hillel with the demand that he teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Many of us forget that the context for this anecdote is a wager between two men that one of them can make Hillel lose his temper. They harass Hillel with a series of annoying or humiliating demands, but he never lashes out. Hillel, of course, at one time was kicked out of the study house and had to spend the evening on the roof, covered with snow. He could have responded to that humiliating incident with rage. Instead, he became a great rabbi with the singular mission of teaching others to control their tempers. It’s a lesson many still need today.