Remember 18 months ago, at the beginning of the Shelter-in-Place mandate?
Remember when working from home in sweatpants, without shoes on was all the rage?
Remember when we sat at home binge watching TV and when Tiger King was all the rage?
Remember when 1000 piece puzzles were…all the rage?
Now it’s different.
Did you hear he didn’t wear a mask at Lollapalooza?
Can you believe it?
She doesn’t care about anyone but herself. She goes out every weekend, travels on airplanes…and she’s not even vaccinated! Then she sends her kids to school?!
Now it’s: The government is just awful — whatever happened to freedom of choice! I’m vaccinated and don’t have children — why do I have to wear a mask all the time?
Somehow, we’ve now arrived at a moment, where the only thing that seems to be all the rage, is rage itself!
I honestly do not think that I’ve had a single conversation in the last 6 months where someone has not expressed anger about someone else! Lately, all around me, all around us, all around the world rage has become all the rage.
Is it new? Maybe. Maybe not? But something about it feels new. Perhaps it’s merely an escalation of an already divided society, with the added trauma of living through, what seems like, this never-ending pandemic.
We are tired. Really tired. We are short tempered. There’s so much uncertainty.
Masks. No Masks. Gather in-person. Don’t gather. School is safe. No it isn’t.
He’s taking away my rights. She’s trying to kill me. I’ve been living with trauma for 18 months. What do you expect? My bucket of compassion is empty.
So where do we find ourselves? We think we are here because of this pandemic, that may be true. But we are not the first people, not even the first Jewish community to live in an era where rage is all the rage.
Listen to this story from 2000 years ago. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar felt free to express their rage. Whatever they thought, they said. “Oh these Romans are no good,” they would complain. “All they do, they do for themselves. They established extravagant markets to make money. Opulent baths to indulge their sexual desires. Impressive bridges just to levy tolls.” Well…word got back to the Romans. The Romans went into a rage themselves and sentenced Shimon and Elazar to death.
Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar fled from the Romans to the only safe space they knew of — a small cave. Each day, every day of their confinement the two studied Torah all day long. After 12 long years of seclusion, the Roman Emperor died, and the two were able to come out of the cave.
As they exited the cave and adjusted their eyes to the sunlight, they saw farmers toiling the land. Rabbi Shimon exclaimed, “These people have abandoned the world of Torah! They are engaged in mundane affairs!” Shimon and Elazar were outraged and incensed at what they saw. Fire blazed forth from their eyes and whatever they gazed upon, burned to the ground.
Just then, a Divine voice called out, “If you go on like this there will be nothing left! Did you come out of your cave simply to destroy My world? Get back to your cave!”
Sound familiar? No, we haven’t been forced into isolation for 12 years, but there have certainly been moments where it has felt that way. And now that some of us are starting to emerge from our “caves,” as it were, we must wonder — have we emerged, just to set our world on fire?
Have we? We send nasty emails to coworkers. We instigate fights with our partners. We lose our temper with our children. We have disproportionate responses; we rush to judgment; we air our personal grievances and vent with rage, all because…it’s been a long, exhausting, tiring, 18 months. Not so different from Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar? They spent a long, exhausting, tiring 12 years, devoting their lives to the study of Torah, only to emerge to a world that had abandoned such values. Was their anger justified? Is ours? Sure, in many instances it feels that way.
So if our anger is justified, what’s the problem? The problem is that anger puts us terribly out of balance. Maimonides teaches that all character traits should be balanced. For example, we shouldn’t be cowardly or reckless, but we should be thoughtful. We shouldn’t be too egotistical or too self-effacing. We should have a humble self-confidence. But, when it comes to anger he claims there is no “middle way”. For Maimonides, any amount of anger, even the tiniest amount, even if it is justified, is simply too much.
There aren’t many situations where our commentators agree, but when it comes to anger, they all seem to side with Maimonides; distance yourself from it. Even if it is justified.
My friends, today is Yom Kippur. This is not a sermon about why your emotions are justified, even if they are. This is a sermon about how we can become responsible for our own emotions and actions. This is a sermon about owning our anger and how we can apply the antidote to it. It’s about how we can counteract our anger. Owning our anger. Finding its antidote.
Let’s go back to the cave. After being sent back to the cave, angry Shimon and Elazar spent another 12 months in isolation, before a Divine voice called out: “Emerge from your cave.”
And so they did indeed emerge. And you know what happened? Well there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that Elazar was unchanged. Elazar came out still burning, literally, with rage. He came out and resumed setting the world on fire. The good news is that Shimon changed; every fire Elazar started, Shimon extinguished. Every wound Elazar would inflict, Shimon would instead heal.
Why these two different results? How is it possible that Elazar couldn’t let go of his anger, but Shimon could?
A Hasidic Commentary explains that when Rabbi Shimon was sent back to the cave he learned that there was a better way of being in the world. That there was a better way than being angry and outraged at everyone else, all the time. That better way of being is what we call chen, the way of compassion.
Isn’t that what these High Holy Days are all about? Isn’t that what we are sitting here all day praying for from God?
Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu v’aneinu
Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious and answer us
ki ayn banu ma’asim even though we have little merit.
Choneinu, be gracious to us.
I bet you didn’t think you’d hear a sermon on Yom Kippur, on the most sacred of holy days in our Jewish tradition about grace. Isn’t grace a Christian idea? Well, yes, our Christian friends and neighbors have their own concept and understanding of grace, but so do we.
What exactly is Jewish grace?
According to Rabbi Rami Shapiro: chen is unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned and all-inclusive love for all creation. Put simply — it’s love for humanity — whether deserved or not, whether earned or not, whether merited or not.
Choneinu v’aneinu ki ayn banu ma’asim: be gracious and answer us, even when we have little merit.
What exactly is Jewish grace? It is what Shimon bar Yochai learned in the cave.
When people are setting our world on fire, what might it look like to heal? In a world filled with so much anger, we need compassion, we need chen. Not only because our world is on fire, and not only because an ancient story teaches us to do so, but because the way of chen is always the better way. Let me share with you three reasons why.
First, we need to remember that there are certainly times in our lives, where we don’t always deserve chen ourselves. We are nasty. We lash out at others. We’ve been disrespectful and unkind. And what do we hope for in return? Not anger and rage, but compassion.
When we have a bad day, we want to be let off the hook. We expect others to treat us with kindness.
Speaking of kindness, that same Hasidic commentary about Shimon bar Yochai concludes, “If you see something ugly or unbecoming in another person, you should look past it to see that even God dwells there, too. Doing so is even for your own benefit. Why? Because we want people to look past that ugliness inside of us.” We aren’t perfect. Not a single one of us. Chen is seeing the best in people and at the same time, remembering that we yearn for others to see the best in us, too.
After all, that is what each and every one of us is doing here today, on Yom Kippur. Asking God to grant us kindness, to treat us with compassion and love…even if we have little merit. Even if we have fallen off the path in this past year. Even if we haven’t been deserving. We cannot sit here on Yom Kippur and expect God to treat us kindly and show love for us, when we have little merit, if we refuse to do the same for others. That’s the first reason to choose the path of chen.
Number two, we cannot be so foolish as to think that our anger has no effect on us. In fact, our anger, even if justified, only consumes us. All anger ultimately does is add fuel to an already raging fire. An ancient Midrash compared anger to a boiling steam kettle. When the water boils over, it pours the boiling water on all sides. When the water is all evaporated, the kettle itself burns and is destroyed.
Anger is self-destructive. The more angry we are, the further away we are from the person we want to be. We can instead show compassion so that our anger doesn’t destroy us, and so that our souls remain whole. Remember, Yom Kippur is not about changing others. It’s about changing ourselves. We don’t get to control the behavior or actions of other people. Yom Kippur reminds us that we can only control ourselves and the condition of our own souls.
There are many issues of morality and ethics that may feel so right to us– that there is even a definitive right and wrong. I want to make it clear that this is not a sermon about standing idly by issues of justice. We can, and we should still have our moral grounding. But there exists a huge gulf between righteous indignation and all consuming anger.
I know what I am saying is difficult. I need you to hear me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel the way you feel. We can’t control what we feel; we can control how we act, and how we respond. What I am saying is that we have to ask ourselves “what good will my anger do? How will my rage leave the condition of my soul?”
Because we don’t actually have to respond with anger! We don’t always have to respond with the same level of anger we receive. We can respond with kindness, compassion and love. When we receive an annoying email from a coworker, don’t respond with an angry email in return. Instead, get up from your desk, walk over to the coworker and talk with them. Ask them how their day is. Have a conversation. Treat them with kindness. When we are frustrated at home after a long day, pause and call a timeout. Order in dinner, instead of angrily cooking. Enjoy a family meal together. If an old friend says something that offends you, take a deep breath. Instead of being short or lashing out, spend time with them. Remember why you’ve been friends for so long.
That is chen. It’s taking a pause in our anger and turning to compassion. It is what we should do no matter how tired we are, no matter how angry we may feel — it is our obligation to see the humanity even in the person infuriating us. Even in the face of wrongdoings. If we are interested in repair, only chen has the power to bring healing, especially to ourselves.
Third, choosing chen might just work. Choosing chen just might work. What do I mean by that? Responding to someone who does not merit love may throw them off their own path of anger; it might derail their own destructiveness. The beauty and gift of chen is that it has the power to be transformative not only for the person giving it, but also, for the person receiving it, too. It is simply the opposite of anger. Instead of responding viciously, we respond virtuously. Chen, grace, giving people more than they deserve. It might actually become contagious.
Our world is hurting. Our community is hurting. We are hurting.
What might happen if we responded with chen? With a sense of calmness, kindness and love because that is who we want to be. Isn’t that the whole reason we are here today, fasting and praying?
Let’s admit, hating on anti vaxxers or hating on mask mandators isn’t going to eradicate COVID-19.
Let’s admit that hating those who support the abortion ban isn’t going to change a law.
None of this is to say that we need to give the other side a pass.
We do, however, need to reclaim our power. We need to stop outsourcing our agency to anger. Anger infrequently convinced anyone of anything.
But, kindness might. Chen might. Without breaking the vicious cycle of anger and of hate and of judgment and of rage, there is certainly no possibility.
You might still be thinking, “Rabbi, you are absolutely nuts. I have nothing in my heart and soul for those people who are destroying our world. If you think I am going to listen to this sermon on Chen, on giving people grace who don’t deserve it…you are crazy.”
So let me dial it back a bit — because the reality is, that I’m not speaking about extreme situations. Honestly, extreme examples are simply a distraction from the changes that we really, truly need to make in our own lives and in our inner circles with the people we do care about.
I’m talking about thinking twice before sending an angry email. Approaching a frustrating scenario with a colleague with kindness and compassion. Pausing at home with our children and partners, and responding with care. Making sure we don’t lose cherished friendships. What I’m saying is that no matter how wronged we were, before giving the cold shoulder or lashing out or even reprimanding — we pause and we ask ourselves “will it really make the situation better?”
Will it really make me better?
As we begin this year anew, the choice is ours — to be like Elazar or to be like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Do we emerge from this pandemic and set the world ablaze with judgment and rage? Or do we emerge with compassion and grace?
I know there are many times in this last year that I chose anger. I know rage is all the rage.
In this new year of 5782 my hope is that we can find our way to chen, to grace. For ourselves, for our friends and our family, and for the entire world. May this be a year where we earn the right to say Avinu Malkeinu, Choneinu v’aneinu, ki ayn banu masim. Avinu Malkeinu be gracious and answer us, for we have little merit.
1 Hilchot Deot 2:3
2 Shabbat 33b.
3 Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Vayetze #5 and Chayye Sarah #2
4 Shapiro, Rabbi Rami. Amazing Chesed: Living a Grace-Filled Judaism. Vii.
5 Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Vayetze #5 and Chayye Sarah #2
6 Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:8