Maimonides, Laws of De'os - Chapter 2, Law 3(c)
Anger and Self-Worship
"There are certain character traits which a person is forbidden to
accustom himself in, even in moderation. Rather, he must distance himself
to the opposite extreme. One such trait is haughtiness...
"So too is anger an exceedingly bad quality; one from which it is proper
that one distance himself to an extreme. A person should train himself not
to anger even on a matter regarding which anger is appropriate. And if a
person wants to instill awe upon his children -- or if he is an
administrator / provider ('parnais') and wants to anger at the community
members in order that they mend their ways, he should only feign anger in
their presence in order to castigate them, but his mind should be composed
within. He should act as one impersonating an [angry] man while not being
"The early Sages said, 'Whoever angers is as if he has performed
idolatry.' They said further that one who angers, if he is a scholar his
wisdom will depart from him, and if he is a prophet his prophetic spirit
will depart from him. [The Sages further stated,] 'People who have
tempers -- their lives are not lives.'
"Therefore, [the Sages] instructed us that one should distance himself
from anger so much so that one accustoms himself not to feel even things
which [would ordinarily] incite one to anger. And this is the ideal path.
"It is [further] the way of the righteous that they are insulted / abused
('aluvim') but do not insult back; they hear themselves being disgraced
and do not respond. They act out of love and rejoice in suffering.
Regarding them does the verse state, 'And those that love Him are as the
emergence of the sun in its power' (Judges 5:31)."
For the past two weeks we've been discussing arrogance. That was the first
trait the Rambam instructed us to avoid to an extreme. We now arrive at
the second such trait -- anger. Our discussion here will follow a pattern
very similar to our treatment of arrogance. We will first attempt to gain
some insight into the precise evil of anger -- just what is so thoroughly
wicked and irredeemable about it that brooks no room for compromise. And
we'll then point out and attempt to resolve the contradiction in the
Rambam's words -- in that he earlier chose anger as an example of a trait
in which one should take the middle path.
Let's first look at the Rambam's first quote -- that anger is tantamount
to idolatry. As we know, idolatry is virtually the worst sin imaginable in
Judaism. It is taking the awe and fear of an infinite G-d and attributing
it to some finite, lifeless part of His creation -- be it a molten image,
flesh-and-blood creature, or heavenly body. We tend to think of idolatry
as a backward and archaic practice. Primitive man, searching for meaning
and stability in a cruel and senseless world -- and too afraid or
unsophisticated to comprehend that a finite world must have an infinite
Source -- turns to statues, forces of nature or the heavens in hope of
explaining and perhaps even controlling the inexplicable.
And, our thinking must continue, man has thankfully progressed well beyond
this today. We've given rational explanations for what was heretofore
incomprehensible. And what we cannot explain we attribute to decidedly non-
sacred causes, be they evolution, determinism, or quantum mechanics.
(I had the frustration of reading not long ago an article about what today
is termed NDE -- near death experiences, in which people on the brink of
death and complete cranial shutdown suddenly gain heightened awareness.
They typically float to the top of the room (and actually look down on
themselves (their bodies, that is) on the operating table) and see before
them deceased relatives and a passageway leading them to heaven. There are
many recorded cases of such people, after being revived, of being able to
relay facts about their surroundings which they couldn't possibly have
been aware of anesthetized and under the knife -- and often they report
having seen relatives they weren't even aware had passed on.
To the believer (or believer-to-be if he would only examine the evidence
with a modicum of intellectual honesty), clearly the soul has departed the
body and prepares for its journey to the heavenly tribunal. (And though we
don't know from Jewish tradition precisely what happens to the soul after
death, practically all the facts thus far observed are perfectly
consistent with the many recorded cases and statements in Jewish
literature -- such as that already-departed souls come to escort the newly-
deceased soul to heaven, and even of people being revived shortly after
passing on.) Even science does not deny the existence of such cases: there
have been far too many to disregard. Yet as to be expected they come up
with the usual slew of cockamamie theories for what is actually
transpiring -- once again managing to explain away a G-d staring them in
Anyway, returning to our subject, we tend to think of idolatry as a thing
of the past. Yet our Sages, in their wisdom and perception, tell us that
the person of angry temperament performs this same terrible sin. How so?
Have you ever noticed how people act when they've "lost it" in anger? They
lash out; they strike whatever is closest. They bang their fist on the
table. Why? What did the poor defenseless table do to deserve such
treatment? How is that somehow the natural reaction to frustration?
The answer is that often we anger out of extreme frustration. Things
aren't going my way, nothing is getting done, someone isn't listening to
me. And what's my reaction? I lash out. I strike against whatever is
nearest -- hopefully an inanimate rather than animate object. And that
actually sometimes helps. What was I doing? I was reasserting myself. Life
was out of control; I couldn't get anything done. But now subconsciously
I've shown that I exist. I make a difference; I have reality. I control my
surroundings: I can hit, yell, bang my fist, frighten others, and hurt
their feelings. And in my own perverted way, I have shown that I am the
master of my own little world.
This is idolatry.
We overact in anger because we feel our sense of control has been
compromised. And we have to show we cannot be ignored, that we are here
and that our orders and demands must not be trifled with. But is it truly
we who control the world? Isn't G-d the Controller of all things? Isn't it
His universe and not ours? And if things don't go our way, isn't it G-d's
doing and G-d's decision? One who feels he has to strike out against a
heedless and uncaring world to make it clear he's in charge is denying
that basic premise -- the single most basic premise of reality.
And so, anger at its worst is idolatry. It is living in a man-centric
rather than G-d-centric world. And as the Rambam writes, there is no room
for such an attitude in our psyches. It's either G-d's world or our own;
there can be no middle ground.(Based on a thought heard from my teacher R.
Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu).)
Let us quickly deal with the other statement the Rambam quotes regarding
anger. They shed even further light on this matter. The Rambam stated that
a prophet who angers will lose his prophetic spirit. This clearly follows
from our basic thesis above. If anger stems from a perception that I and
not G-d am master of my surroundings, it certainly stands to reason that
such a body cannot enjoy close prophetic communion with the G-d he has
just cast away.
The Rambam makes two other statements along a slightly different track.
The first was that the angry fellow's wisdom will depart from him. This is
simply because when we are angry we do not think straight. Any of us who
have had the ill fortune of living, working or spending time with a hot-
tempered person (or who've had bouts of being one ourselves) are often
surprised how otherwise intelligent and rational people begin acting just
so *ridiculously* when angry. They blow up over such trivial issues; they
see the most vicious motives behind another's completely innocent
behavior. And if things aren't just *perfect* for them, they just won't
play the game: they won't eat *anything* for supper. And by the way, don't
try to reason with them either; just stay out of their way till their
brains come back on line.
(Even from the anonymity of the Web, people occasionally write me how
miserable an upbringing they had, what tyrants and overgrown babies their
(often highly-respected) fathers really were at home. And it just so
saddens me to think of the harm it must have done them as youngsters.
Although there are actually some benefits to being exposed to difficult
personality types (psychologists observe that people who grew up
with "ticking-bomb" fathers are much better at reading other people; my
teacher R. Moshe Eisemann also pointed out that such people have some hope
of understanding what "fear of Heaven" truly is), all of this could never
outweigh the damage. One's childhood years, which should be filled with
warmth, security, encouragement, and the building of self-esteem are
instead a time of turbulence, heartache, and verbal (if not physical)
abuse. And a damaged child is so much more at risk for turning into an
troubled teen -- and an unstable adult, "avenging" his father's abuse by
taking it out on his own kids.)
Needless to say, we can equally well understand the Rambam's final
statement -- that the hothead's life is not a life. Not being able to
tolerate contrariness and the frustrations which are invariably the lot of
man, the angry person will live in a constant state of turmoil and
irritability. And his loved ones will live their lives treading on
eggshells, with the underlying tension of having a ticking bomb in their
midst, which at any moment and with the most unexpected provocation will
(Once when I was a young yeshiva student, studying in Israel, I spent a
Sabbath with a family in which the father was one such tyrant, angry and
annoyed practically no matter what his wife and kids did. Children in such
families do learn how to humor such a father and for the most part know
which fuses to avoid. But they moved out -- and far away -- basically as
soon as they were old enough. And unfortunately, we think we've recognized
the mistakes and bad behavior patterns of our parents and know to avoid
them ourselves, but we often find ourselves slipping into the exact same
Thus far we have discussed the precise evil of anger and why it is so
unacceptable from a Jewish perspective. Most other traits have a place
somewhere in our lives. There's a time to be extroverted and a time to
clam up, a time for aggressiveness and a time for caution. But there is
never a time for idolatry. If we do not live with that most basic premise
that this is G-d's world, we will never truly have a life -- neither we
nor our loved ones who depend on us.
Next week, G-d willing, we will discuss when and where there *is* room for
anger, as the Rambam himself earlier stated.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org