Anger is a difficult emotion to overcome because it penetrates our core at the deepest level. When we get angry, our already short fuse is further shortened. We are like a pot of water on a burner, perpetually simmering, ready to boil over at any moment. So how do we quiet that anger to help us return to that place of calm? How do we soften our hardened hearts?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vaera, we begin reading about the first seven of the 10 plagues to befall the Egyptians. A new Pharaoh came to power, one who oppressed the Jewish people to a greater degree than his predecessor. If you look closely at the text of our story, it seems that throughout this Pharaoh’s lifetime, he had his heart hardened on 20 different occasions. What made it worse was that with each additional plague, his anger and callousness increased, causing him to take his wrath out on the Israelites.
The Torah teaches that for the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, yet after each of the final five plagues, we are told that it was God who made Pharaoh’s heart hard: a transition from “Pharaoh’s heart remained heavy” to “Adonai made Pharaoh’s heart strong-willed.”
One midrash on this topic (Exodus Rabbah 13:4) teaches that Pharaoh first hardened his heart on his own, without God’s intervention, because God wanted to give Pharaoh free choice to repent. When Pharaoh demonstrated that he would never allow himself to change, refusing to let the Israelites go free, God stepped in, exacerbating the situation as a way of punishing Pharaoh’s stubbornness.
This is a very challenging theological proposition, the idea that God would intervene, forcing someone to intentionally become angry, taking away a person’s free choice to prove that God is more powerful. Furthermore, it would be troubling to see God as seeking vengeance on human beings, who are fallible and vulnerable.
Rabbi Neil Gillman, a theologian and philosopher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, offers a compelling resolution. For Gillman, God’s manipulation of Pharaoh’s heart was a unique exception to prove the importance of freedom. At first, God gave Pharaoh five chances (the first five plagues) to exercise his free choice to soften his own heart and free the Jewish people. God was trying to give Pharaoh an opportunity to quiet his anger of his own volition. When God saw that Pharaoh refused to do so, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to teach the importance of not placing a stumbling block before another person, preventing him or her from living a free and spiritually fulfilling life. In a way, God made an example out of Pharaoh to teach that anger causes us to stop seeing the big picture while denying others, ourselves included, from experiencing the blessings and power of freedom and choice.
The story of Pharaoh is difficult to understand and rationalize. It teaches me that experiencing anger prevents us from being in touch with the world, from those we love and hold dear. When I notice myself approaching the breaking point, I try to take a deep breath and take a step back before continuing the conversation. Alternatively, when I feel myself becoming overly frustrated, I excuse myself and ask to continue the conversation when things have calmed downed. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power, which can move the world … . It is not that I do not get angry. I do not give vent to anger. I cultivate the quality of patience as angerlessness, and generally speaking, I succeed. But I only control my anger when it comes. How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice.”
Throughout our lives, may we be fortunate enough to develop patience and calmness when we feel ourselves growing angry, and in doing so, may we be fortunate enough to have our hearts softened in heated moments so that we may help ourselves and others experience the blessings of peace and freedom.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.