I’ve been feeling a little angry lately. There’s no apparent reason for it. Yes there is loud and persistent construction on the house behind me. And yes, my stimulus check hasn’t been deposited and every day I go to IRS.com I get the same “Payment Status Not Available” screen. And also Trader Joe’s was out of the foaming soap so I’m having to use the stuff that chaps my hands (even with lotion). But as a whole, things are going pretty well especially considering the difficulties many of my friends and community members have been going through. I’ve got food, electricity, support, and I don’t even mind the isolation.
So when I got out of the shower yesterday, why did I get a sudden wave of anger to which there was nothing I could point to and say, “You’re the cause!”? There are, I’m sure, a myriad of details about my situation, outlook, expectations, and upbringing which might give me a good psychological answer. But this isn’t “let’s do a therapy session.” It’s a Torah blog.
I started learning about the Jewish concept of bitachon (trusting in God) months before Covid 19 brought our lives to a screeching halt. The main selling point of bitachon is that if one truly believes that God runs the show and is doing so for an ultimate good, then no matter what happens, that person should feel content, even excited for challenges put in front of them. Even in extraordinary circumstances. If I am to believe this outlook is true, clearly there is something I am missing. So, what does bitachon say about anger?
The Forbidden Trait
According to Rambam, anger is one of the few character traits a person must work to eradicate from themselves completely (Hichos De’os 2:3). Sources even go as far as to compare anger to idol worship. Why would a God given human emotion be regarded so harshly? We’ll come to see that it’s not the emotion that’s the problem but the outlook.
At its core anger is about having an expectation and reality going against that expectation. My internet shouldn’t be this slow! I’m paying for the most expensive Comcast package! Or I can’t believe I was on hold for 2 hours with the post office only for the call to get disconnected after 5 minutes! When we expect the world is supposed to work a certain way, that’s really us thinking we have control. If I play by these rules, then I should get what I want/was promised. But as many of us are learning in this time, those rules are clearly just constructs and we, in actuality, have very little control.
When Not Having Control Can Be Wonderful
Bitachon is also about us having no control. But the effect creates the opposite feeling. How does this work? Two important factors.
One, God runs the world and wants what’s best for me.
When we get angry we are faced with the fact that we don’t have control. That subconsciously makes us realize that something else is. Someone bigger, someone richer, some random chaos (like a virus). And that means danger. If I could die in a car crash at any moment, I’d be terrified to drive. But if I wear my seat belt, I watch where I’m going, look at how small the numbers are that statistically I’d actually die, I can convince myself I am reasonably safe. I have control. But when someone cuts me off or rolls through the stop sign, I get angry because they’re not following the rules! They sent that jolt of surprise that knocked me out of my comfort zone! I need to yell at them so they know to follow the rules, so I can be safe! (Insults to dignity and honor may seem categorically different, but they really aren’t).
However, if God runs the show and He wants what is best for me, then we’re playing a different game. It doesn’t matter how careful I drive or how many stars the NHTSA crash test rating awarded my vehicle, if God wants me to get into a crash, I’m going to get into a crash. (That doesn’t mean you have permission to drive recklessly. There are plenty of commandments in the Torah demanding personal responsibility.) The point is success and failure, fortune and misfortune, don’t come from us. They come from Him. Yes, we need to show God that we want it and so we have to put in the effort. But ultimately He is the source.
Two, it’s not about being happy, it’s about growth.
I basically restate this point every bitachon blog post, but life isn’t about being happy. It’s not about being sad or suffering either. It’s about accomplishing and growing. So where I might really want a promotion, it might in truth be the worst thing in the world for me. Sure the bigger paycheck and power might make things comfortable, but are they going to bring sensitivity, true happiness, and connection? Does the world need me to have a corner office or does the world need me to be affecting change in a different way?
When we realize that life isn’t about falling into place within the box of our expectations, it forces us to recontextualize what we experience. Okay so there’s really loud banging all the time from construction. Maybe I need to learn how to concentrate in spite of distractions. — I can’t find my car keys! Okay maybe I am forgetting something else too. Maybe I just need to reconnect to God and ask Him for them. This is a powerful tool for dealing with life. Instead of being angry we don’t have control, we can reach out to God and seek the opportunity we’ve clearly missed. So what would have been a moment of anger can become a moment of reflection and connection.
Why Would God Be So Complicated About It?
Those are some nice ideas. But we do go through suffering in life. Why does God have to make the moments troubling, painful, or distressing? Granted there are moments of real pain and tragedy everyone will likely sooner or later experience, but that’s a slightly different discussion for another time. However for most of the discomfort we experience, they actually come from us and our lack of trust. Let me share a story that demonstrates.
I recently started teaching a science class once a week at a High School. Due to some scheduling issues (many kids being absent, a week I had to be out, etc) I hadn’t given them a test for the end of the semester. When I was told even more kids would be out for the final week before break, I realized I needed to give them a test on the upcoming week. Two problems, I hadn’t done a review with the kids and the kids don’t have access to email so there was no way for me to even let them know the test was coming nor was there a way to get them the review sheet. What was I to do?
I decided to do a review game as a test. Here was the deal. I put questions on the board. If each student in the class answered one question, the whole class got a 60 for a test grade. Each and ever student answered two questions – everyone got a 70, three – 80, you get the idea. The students could help each other answer, but that particular student had to answer the question in front of the entire class. Then when they got back from winter break, they would take a traditional written test, but the questions would be almost identical to the review game. And they could take notes during the review game and then use them during the test. It was a pretty sweet deal.
So the class comes in and sees on the board TEST TODAY and they freak out. That’s to be expected (if not desired). But then I explained the concept and they cooled down a little. However because I was giving the them the test questions and answers, they wouldn’t be able to use any of the notes they had taken in previous classes. One of the students was LIVID demanding this was all unfair and that I was horrible.
Now, I had bent over backwards in the past to make sure they did well, coming in early to meet with students with poor grades, letting them correct bad assignments, creating extra credit opportunities to make sure they could recover from any low grades. Yet here I was practically being compared to the Führer despite the fact that I was stacking the deck heavily in their favor.
We’re like this with Hashem ALL THE TIME. He has a proven track record of getting us what we need when we need it. And though we may have gone through difficult times, He’s the one who gets us through it. For most of our suffering, worry is the worst part. The actual painful moment isn’t that painful. Like getting a booster shot. And we all know the booster shot is good for us (well most of us anyway).
So what was I so mad about? Short answer, I still don’t know. I went for a walk (taking all social distance and other precautions) and came up with an answer, but this post has gone long enough. Point is, it had to do with realizing He was in control and He will give me what I need when I need it. Ultimately it comes down to what game are you playing?
If you want to do it your way, living for physical pleasures, and looking out for number one, you can. But don’t trick yourself into thinking you’ve got any real control in that destiny. And try not to get angry about it. Or you can play the other game, knowing God has control and will always support you. At that point, you’ll get what you need when you need it. As long as you’re following a few rules and are sincerely trying to build your connection with Him.
This post was written in the merit of Eliezer ben Avraham and Daniel ben Avraham. May their neshamas have an aliyah.