Vayechi: Anger Requires Character and Education

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 year ago

      Some weeks ago, we read about Yaakov being upset by the actions of Shimon and Levi; it sounds like he is upset for practical reasons. “You have troubled me to make me odious to the inhabitants of the land…; I am not a lot of people; they will gather against me and I will be destroyed, I and my house.” After Shimon and Levi answer without remorse, the Torah relates that God sends Yaakov to Beit El, and when the family travels, “the terror of God is on the surrounding cities,” and they do not touch the family. It seems as if perhaps Yaakov is wrong after all; perhaps the act of Shimon and Levi gives the family a reputation that protects it. Some may argue that this “hearkens forward” to conversations between Jews today, some saying that dealing harshly with our enemies will make us odious to the international community, and some asking “Are we supposed to just let things slide?” And arguing that case, one may conclude that this episode definitively proves the hawks right, and that Yaakov must have realized this.

      How surprising then may be the “blessing” Yaakov gives to Shimon and Levi in this week’s parashah. After what he worries about does not come to pass, he seems to condemn their action in much stronger language. We put “blessing” in quotes because while the word “blessed” never appears in what Yaakov says, the word “cursed” does. The words sound like a harsh moral condemnation, striking final words to one’s sons on one’s deathbed.

      Perhaps even more striking is a comment of Rashi’s. When the word “cursed” appears, the curse is on the anger of Shimon and Levi, but not on Shimon and Levi themselves. In his comment, Rashi quotes Bilaam: “How can I curse one whom God has not cursed?” It sounds like Rashi may be arguing that Yaakov wishes he could curse them, but has to stop short, because Shimon and Levi have God’s support; that they are right in their behavior after all, but Yaakov cannot bring himself to endorse such a course of action.

      “May my soul not come into their council; may my honor not be united with their assembly,” says Yaakov. He wants no part of what they do, but he does not say that they are wrong. Indeed, at the end of Devarim, when Moshe gives his blessing to Levi[1], he seems very clearly to approve of Levi’s behavior, even as the behavior itself is, if anything, even more troubling at that point, involving killing members of one’s immediate family.

      Yaakov starts his blessing by saying that Shimon and Levi are brothers, and the Ramban appears to believe that this is indeed blessing and approbation: they behave like true brothers to Dinah, treating iniquity toward her as if it were toward themselves. Yaakov ends his blessing by saying that Levi and Shimon will be spread throughout all of Israel.

      Rabbi Isaac Arama, interestingly, quotes Aristotle’s Ethics here: that anger and temper, while generally undesirable, can sometimes prove useful, arousing “the heroic” in man. R. Arama, unlike the Rambam, maintains that anger, too, is good and appropriate in moderation. Had Shimon and Levi been concentrated into their own portions, he argues, their anger would be problematic; but spread throughout the nation, it is a necessary and vital component.

      We are not completely convinced that what Shimon and Levi are exhibiting is anger—at least not the way in which the Rambam means it. The Rambam himself, after writing that one should distance himself from anger completely, talks about how it may sometimes be important to appear angry. We believe that when the Rambam says anger, he means a loss of control over oneself. Shimon and Levi have days to think about things with Dinah; they do not just act in a fit of rage. Neither does Pinchas (from the tribe of Levi).

      We believe that feeling anger as a feeling is important, and worth cultivating for the right situations; in tandem, we believe that it is important to cultivate self-control always. But the nuances of anger do not end at self-control. The Netziv, writing about Pinchas, writes that anger in the hands of an educated person can be good—but the bar, he writes, is very high. We see this problem in modern times: the followers of Bernie Sanders have good reason to be angry; nearly all their complaints are legitimate. Because they do not understand how their government—indeed, how their society—functions, the actions they take in their anger perpetuate and strengthen the system that oppresses them. They are absolutely right, for example, to be angry about the problem of corporate lobbying; the expansions of government that they advocate would provide corporations with even greater incentives to lobby, and the potential for even larger advantages from doing so. The higher taxes that they advocate would increase inequality. But they would need to study economics, and ideally public choice theory, to understand the mechanisms by which these things happen.

      Yaakov spreading Shimon and Levi among the tribes could in fact be interpreted as one of the greatest blessings he gives on his deathbed: observe, after all, that only two of the 12 tribes continue to be recognized among Jews today, and that the fact that Levi is one of them is directly related to this spreading[2]. Anger is very dangerous; but when accompanied by a properly developed character and proper education, it is a force thanks to which the world has not descended into utter chaos, or worse. Yaakov has to acknowledge the importance and potential goodness of anger, as much as, if we are to read Rashi the way we did, he does not want to.

      One approach to davening is to see what kinds of traits we ascribe to God, and then to cultivate those traits in ourselves—to refine ourselves by imitating God. God is often described as merciful and forgiving, but it is worth noting that anger is also a feeling that is ascribed to God. God is slow to anger, and when His anger is mentioned, it is often in the context of us requesting that He be less angry. But the fact that His anger exists and is a concern tells us that God feels strongly—whatever that may mean—about justice, and makes it a priority. Perhaps it makes our lives fuller when we do not accept injustice “sitting down”; when we are not complacent in the face of immorality. That is anger; may we be sufficiently versed in its dangers and its management as to not be afraid to experience it.

      [1] Devarim 33:9, discussing their behavior after the golden calf incident. On the other hand, Moshe appears to refuse to even say anything about Shimon. There is much to unpack here about the different directions in which this behavior can go.
      [2] Shimon, on the other hand, is the first tribe to disappear; as we have argued, anger is good only in a very well-made cocktail with self-control and education. The effect of Yaakov’s blessing depends on how equipped one is to receive it.

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