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ANGER

Richard Greenberg

The World Series is fading into memory, but one image will long endure: Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens with his right arm cocked and ready to fire. But instead of a ball, there's a jagged shard of baseball bat in his hand.

We all know what happened immediately before and after that shot-seen-round-the-world was taken. Before: When Mets catcher Mike Piazza connected with a Clemens pitch, his bat shattered and the barrel end cartwheeled directly at a surprised Clemens, who caught it with his glove. After: Clemens winged the bat toward the first-base line, narrowly missing Piazza, and almost igniting a bench-clearing brawl.

No one knows exactly why Clemens reacted as he did, but it's no great stretch to assume that anger probably played a role. Anger, after all, is one of the most common -- and debilitating -- of all human emotions. And as such, it is a topic of intense scrutiny and almost universal condemnation in Judaism.

Our holy texts are replete with references to anger as well as its emotional flipside -- that all-too-often-rare human impulse that nurtures interpersonal peace and accommodation.

The Talmud, for example, sounds this cautionary note: "Consider one who tears his clothing or breaks his vessels or scatters his money in his anger as an idolator." (Shabbos 105b).

The Vilna Gaon, one of our greatest scholars, apparently picked up on that theme (in his Beur HaGra to Mishlei 16:31) when he declared that anger is one of two traits that actually prevent a person from serving G-d -- the same G-d, incidentally, who we are instructed to emulate. The same G-d who is described, again and again in the stirring words of the High Holiday services, as ". . . slow to anger and abundant in kindness . . ."

A flesh-and-blood role model our tradition singles out as an exemplar of conciliation is Aaron, the brother of Moses. None other than Hillel, no slouch at accommodation himself, advises us to "be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah." (Pirkei Avos 1:12).

Why all the emphasis on mitigating strife and contention? What exactly is wrong with anger? Well, in some cases, nothing at all.

"Anger can signal us that an injustice is being committed and motivate us to speak up and take action to right the wrong," notes Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in his book "Anger: The Inner Teacher" (ArtScroll). Anger, he explains, can also stimulate the production of adrenaline, which increases our strength in order to accomplish demanding physical tasks.

Judaism, however, generally strives for moderation in behavior, and its take on anger is a perfect illustration of that. Just ask Maimonides, that renowed legal codifier, philosopher and all-around Jewish renaissance man of the 12th and early 13th centuries.

"Don't be a bad-tempered person who becomes angry easily," he wrote in his work Hilchos De'os 1:4. "Neither should you be like a corpse that doesn't feel anything. Rather, be in the middle. Don't become angry except over a serious matter . . ."

In short, a little anger goes a long way. Too much of it can cloud one's thinking, impair judgment and even prove to be physiologically harmful. Violence is a natural consequence of uncontrolled anger and aggression, which manifests itself in many forms, including that potentially fatal phenomenon known as road rage. The once-friendly skies aren't even immune anymore. "Airline rage" is now all the rage among some hyper-disgruntled flyers.

This is not just a contemporary problem, however. One noteworthy example of anger-induced excess is found in the Bible when Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi massacred all the men in the city of Shechem after their sister Dina had been abducted (Genesis 34:25). What initially appeared to be a righteous act of retribution later was condemned by Jacob as impulsive, dangerous behavior.(Genesis 49:5-7).

What could they have done otherwise? The sad truth is that cultivating self-control is often easier said than done. But there are ways. In fact, Rabbi Pliskin's book lists no fewer than 49 practical tools and techniques for managing anger. They range from taking a calming sip of water to singing a song to role playing to effectively separating oneself from a combustible situation by mentally "going to the balcony" and watching the scene unfold from a distance.

Another time-tested method for mitigating anger is found in Pirkei Avos, one of Judaism's most exhaustive compendiums of ethical and moral teachings. At one point, the sage Yehoshua ben Perachyah advises us to ". . . judge everyone favorably." (1:6). In other words, whenever possible, give someone the benefit of the doubt -- even if doing so might strain credibility a little. On balance, it's probably worth it if it helps achieve peace. What's the harm?

Let's apply that standard to the case of Roger Clemens. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. On closer examination, perhaps anger had nothing to do with the bat-throwing incident. Perhaps in the heat of the moment, he became confused and really did mistake the airborne bat fragment for a batted ball. Come to think of it, Clemens has pretty good control of his pitches. If he'd have really wanted to nail Piazza with the bat, he probably could have, especially at such close range. But he didn't. That must count for something. Right, all you Mets fans?

Richard Greenberg, a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., area is the author of the book "Pathways: Jews Who Return," published by Jason Aronson Inc. "Pathways" is a compendium of stories told by once-assimilated Jews who came to embrace their spiritual roots. Mr. Greenberg is available to discuss the book at Rickg613@aol.com

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