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In Judaism, self-mastery is the most important indication of human greatness.

 

In Pirkei Avos (the famous collection of our Sages' ethical teachings) which the Jewish world studies systematically during the summer months, we learn about anger.

There are four types of outlooks, the Sages tell us: (Avos 5:11)

1.     One who is quick to anger and quick to be placated – his gain is outweighed by his loss;

2.     One who is slow to anger and slow to be placated – his loss is outweighed by his gain;

3.     One who is slow to anger and quick to be placated – he is pious;

4.     One who is quick to anger and slow to be placated – he is wicked.

This teaching of the Sages is puzzling on two counts. First of all, why do they speak in terms of "outlooks"? Is our yelling at the person we are conversing with a matter of outlook or world-view?

Surely, anger starts at the point where logic and reason end. Do anger and wrath not burst forth from an instinct that has escaped the shackles of wisdom?

In short, would it not have been more appropriate for the Sages to speak of "four character traits" than "four outlooks?"

Furthermore, we are puzzled by the lack of parallelism in the descriptions of these four approaches to anger. The first two border on the mathematical, while the last two come from the world of morality – "pious" and "wicked."

To understand why the Sages formulated this Mishnah as they did, let us recall the self-justification which people often engage in after an outburst of anger: "That's the way I am. That's my nature. I know that it's not the greatest, but there's nothing I can do about it – especially at my age."

And thus, the individual settles down to live with himself until the next outburst.

The Mishnah, however, teaches us to see this vicious circle of self-justification for what it really is. Anger is not simply a matter of character. It is also a matter of outlook, of world-view, or approach to life.

What evidence do we have for this assessment of anger?

Consider, for example the person who lacks the patience to respond with civility to an innocent request from a stranger. If asked whether he can change a large bill, he is likely to shoot back with: "No! Do I look like a bank to you?"

But if this same request is made by a colleague or someone from whom he needs a favor, all of a sudden the tone grows solicitous: "Just a moment, let me check."

Clearly, what we see operating here is a selective approach to civility. If we were merely observing character traits, the response would be similar.

The Mishnah, then, is completely on target when it tags the one who is quick to anger and slow to be placated as "wicked." If you are the type who is quick to respond, and thus get angry quickly, why are you not quick to respond to an overture or apology from someone who may have wronged you?

Again, the explanation has less to do with a specific trait than with the individual's view of others, of the world and of his Maker.

Healthy, creative and authentic Jewish life is predicated on the cultivation of good character. And the greatest hindrance to good character is anger.

The Sages do not mince words in speaking against anger. Those who get angry are likened to idol-worshipers. They are "wicked," "full of sins," "hated by G-d." Even if they are learned, they fall far short of perfection because, as we have seen, the tendency to anger reflects a flawed outlook or world-view.

It is hardly a wonder that the Sages call on us to remove anger from our hearts. As Jews, we are expected to do more than simply control our anger. It is not enough to be outwardly polite and sociable. We are asked to educate ourselves so that we do not come to feel the need to get angry – regardless of the provocation.

The Torah seeks to mold our entire personality such that the awareness of Hashem guides us in all aspects of our lives. It thus cannot remain "indifferent" to our giving ourselves over to our raw instincts – if only momentarily.

For those who fear that they cannot rise to this challenge of self-education, the Mishnah ought to be a source of encouragement: Yes, the Mishnah acknowledges, it is difficult, very difficult. And that is why one who is slow to anger and quick to be placated is termed a "chassid," a pious person.

But it can be done! Was there ever a significant achievement that came easily?

Let it be absolutely clear: In Judaism, self-mastery is the most important indication of human greatness. Career success and even intellectual success, pale by comparison.

See Rabbi Akiva Eiger, an example of an individual who dedicated his life to developing self-control and unshakable patience.


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