The Rollerblade Hole
Icebergs and Anger
Sometimes I wonder if the patching over the hole in the wall is still there. You know, the one from my rollerblade when I was in elementary school? Oh wait, you mean to tell me not everyone has a childhood tale of kicking a hole in the wall? Let me take a step back. I may be one of the more competitive people you’ll meet. Board games, card games, backyard games, I have been known to get a little bit intense.
As I have gotten older, I have learned to quell that anger (kind of) but one of my earliest memories involves me playing a video game with my two older brothers. As one does, I happened to have been rollerblading in the house. It was the 90s after all. While I played and was losing to my brothers, the lighthearted ribbing began. As the losing intensified, so did the jokes. At some point, my anger, like the red-haired character in Inside Out burst forth. I marched, or rather rolled out of the carpeted room, cocked my leg back and buried my rollerblade in the hallway wall. Needless to say, my parents were not too pleased.
Although it is a story that I can laugh about now, I can still feel that anger. Coursing through me, it felt like gasoline to a fire. Anger has a habit of doing that. Anger is universal. It might manifest uniquely among us but we all know what it feels like.
In his book “Emotional Intelligence,” Psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman tells us that anger
“causes blood to flow to our hands, making it easier for us to strike an enemy or hold a weapon. Our heart rate speeds up, and a rush of hormones—including adrenaline—creates a surge of energy strong enough to take “vigorous action.” Ergo, my rollerblade kick.
Anger however is also a secondary emotion that is often symbolized as an iceberg. You can see the obvious top. That’s what we notice when we’re angry, but there are usually other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger, but it can be difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting. While it is one of the 6 basic emotions and does stand on its own many times we feel anger, it’s usually an outgrowth from something else.
As Susan David, Ph.D., author of “Emotional Agility,” says,
“Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.” So sure, anger can be destructive, but when we begin to recognize it and harness it, we can learn a ton about ourselves!
It’s a trope we see repeat itself over and over again, not just in the world but also in our tradition and especially the book of Bamidbar. The people’s anger toward God and Moses. Moses toward the people. God toward the people. Pinchas toward Zimri and Cozbi. Anger runs rampant and it is felt acutely in our parshah today from the outset.
When the opening text tells us Vayikach Korah, that “Korah took,” the ambiguous phrasing offers a lot of potential interpretations. The Midrash Tanchuma speaks to Korah’s heart overtaking him. That is to say, his anger got the best of him and ran roughshod over his normal emotional faculties. We can hear it in his scathing comments to Moses.
Later on, we see Moses lash out. You have gone too far! Don’t you have enough?! When he first hears their complaints, he falls on his face. Rashi tells us that he was powerless. How did it manifest? A tongue lashing.
Even God, as it were, falls prey to anger, telling Moses and Aaron to stand back while God annihilates the people. Not just wipe them out but it’s going to happen in one fell swoop. On one hand, we can’t fault God for getting angry with the people. This is, after all, becoming a pattern, but to kill them all?! That seems like a classic example of anger leading us to vigorous action which is often rash.
Anger is everywhere in the parshah. The truth is, anger feels like it’s everywhere in our world. Yearly Gallup polls have indicated consistently that anger has been on the rise. Mental health professionals have noted that their clients are processing through anger in higher doses than ever before. The pandemic only intensified this. In addition to the usual anger that courses through conversations on race, religion, political leanings, we now get angry about masks or origins of covid. Rarely are those exchanges calm.
So, where do we turn? The one obvious but not easy answer is therapy. (2nd plug for therapy in as many weeks!) I am as big a proponent as they come. Truthfully, we all should be in therapy. If you find yourself identifying with some of what I described before, finding a mental health professional can be so helpful. If the notion of that feels daunting, please reach out to me.
If that’s not doable currently, there is a more immediate and potentially practical answer. Rabbi Abraham Twersky, of blessed memory, suggests keeping an anger log. He argued that we struggle having control over the feeling of anger, but have a bit better control over our responses and resentments. Because we don’t have free will over the feeling of anger, we must not feel guilty. An anger journal can resemble the following:
Here’s what happened today…
This is how I responded…
Learning how to pay attention, real, deep, introspective attention can be really clarifying. Use your phone. Grab a notebook. Note it down. It can allow us to see what’s beneath the iceberg and understand what’s animating the anger so many of us feel.
Finally, we can actually turn to a moment in our portion to glean a lesson. Right after God’s anger bursts forth and God nearly annihilates the people, Moses and Aaron call out to God in a peculiar prayer. “O God, Source of the spirits of all flesh! When one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”
Arguing for the unfairness of punishing the collective for the sins of a few, the peculiar piece is what they call God---source of spirits of all flesh---Elohei Ha’ruchot Le’chol basar. It is not a moniker for God that we utilize much and in the Torah itself, it only appears one other time in about 11 chapters.
What spirits are we talking about here? Rashi answers as follows: “Your nature is not like that of human beings: an earthly King against whom part of his country commits an offense, does not know who the sinner is, and therefore when he becomes angry he exacts punishment from all of them. But You — before You all human thoughts lie open and You know who is the sinner.
Moses is arguing that a mere mortal ruler might punish everyone for the sins of few. God though has the ability to understand our deepest thoughts. God can probe beyond our anger and see what is lying beneath. So the God of Spirits becomes a God of understanding, a God of empathy, and a God of compassion. Moses is appealing to God’s ability to tease out what’s actually in our hearts.
It is that godly spirit that I hope that we can aspire in our own relationships with our anger and others’ anger. Remember that we are not defined by our anger. The more we can discern what is fueling the anger in ourselves and in others, the more tolerant we can become. We try to imitate God in so many ways, so why not this also?! To God, it might be easy and for us, it will be challenging, but that shouldn't stop us.
It doesn’t feel like our world will get less angry, so may we all strive to dive beneath the anger. To understand that there’s usually something else there. We should get curious about our emotional make ups so that the next time we have that flare up, when we feel that blood rush, that sped up heartbeat, we can pause and try to stop the rollerblade before it makes that next hole.