Shabbat VaYishlakh: Moving Past Anger

וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Gen 33.4)

Rabbi Yannai said, why is [the word ‘kissed’] dotted? it teaches that [Esav] came not to kiss [Yaakov] but to bite him, but our ancestor Yaakov’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Yaakov] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.  Bereshit Rabbah 78.9

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Shalom Shir Tikvah Kehillah Kedoshah,

The urge to stay angry is very satisfying. It must be; otherwise grudges would be unknown to the human race. It also must be quite natural, since the prevailing tradition regarding the fateful meeting in our parashat hashavua insists that Esau must still be murderously angry at his brother Jacob for stealing his birthright twenty years earlier. 
The midrash about Esau mostly expects him to be nursing a giant grudge, still angry after all these years.

While we all know that anger is a natural emotion, and that sometimes it is the correct response to a situation, teachers of Jewish ethics nevertheless assert that anger remains the most dangerous of our emotions. Our judgment while angry is unreliable; feelings are not thoughts, nor are they amenable to reason in the heat of a moment. When HaShem gets angry at the Israelites, the consequences are catastrophic; our rabbis warn that we, created in the Divine image, are also capable of destruction through our anger. 

*Two young people reject a third who until yesterday was one of their closest companions in the mutual aid work that defines their lives. Who suffers most? Might it be the people who won’t be helped because those who are not (yet) ruled out of the “in group” are fewer in number, with less capacity to do their work?

*A member of a board isn’t consulted in a big policy decision. Certainly they can choose to claim that their anger is righteous, and they have every right to walk away denouncing the lack of disrespect. Yet wouldn’t it make more sense if years of camaraderie and the sense of getting good work done outweighed one moment of feeling left out?

*A person age sixty is still angry at their mother, for never apologizing for hurts suffered in childhood. The mother has dementia; the offspring will never hear the only words they’ve sworn will end their anger. Over time, tragically, the quest for healing has gone from reasonable to absurd.

We all live in a world of hurt. Jewish ethics teaches us to recognize that our anger is real, yet not to let it rule over us. We can choose not to defined by a powerful emotion, but to bring into our hearts our capacity to think, and learn, and judge, as well. 

According to our Torah, Esau did just that: he grew past his anger by acknowledging, also, that he had a relationship with his brother that he did not want to lose. And so he made a life for himself with what he had. He chose to live in the present, and not permit the past to continue to hurt him. And he welcomed his brother when Jacob got up the nerve to finally come home.

No matter what justifications Rabbi Yannai of the Talmud and others fabricate for the patriarch, in this long-delayed meeting Jacob himself shows awareness of his sin toward his brother. His attempt to make atonement is clearly indicated in the words “please take my blessing”. Take it back, in other words.

קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻבָ֣את לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־חַנַּ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְכִ֣י יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹ֑ל וַיִּפְצַר־בּ֖וֹ וַיִּקָּֽח׃

Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Gen 33.11)

Esau’s response is that he doesn’t need it; he has created his own blessing. He has been able to overcome his anger. Righteous though it may be, he has chosen to move on. This is in line with the teachings of Maimonides, the great Sephardi sage of Al Andalus and Egypt:

כַּעַס וְאַכְזָרִיּוּת הוּא מֵחֶסְרוֹן הַדַּעַת. וְכָל מַה שֶּׁמִּתְרַבֶּה הַדַּעַת נִתְבַּטֵּל הַכַּעַס וּמִתְרַבֶּה הָרַחֲמָנוּת וְהַחֶסֶד וְהַשָּׁלוֹם. עַל־כֵּן עַל־יְדֵי עֵסֶק הַתּוֹרָה, שֶׁעַל־יְדֵי זֶה נִמְשָׁךְ דַּעַת,
עַל יְדֵי זֶה מִתְבַּטֵּל הַכַּעַס וְנִמְשָׁךְ רַחְמָנוּת וְשָׁלוֹם:
(לק”א סי’ נ”ו אות ו’)

Anger and unkindness arise when people’s understanding is limited.
The deeper their understanding the more their anger disappears, and kindness, love and peace spread.
This is why the study of Torah, which deepens the understanding, brings love and peace into the world and banishes anger
(Rambam, Likutei Etzot, Anger 3, 56:6).

Where in your life do you feel anger? What do you need to move past it? May you find the necessary understanding to let go of anger, and allow yourself peace.

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