Shiur #01: The Anger of Scholars

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau



By Rav Yitzchak Blau



This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Mr Emanuel Abrams
in memory of Rabbi Abba and Eleanor Abrams



Shiur #01: The Anger of Scholars



Rava said: “When a young scholar becomes angry, it is the Torah which angers him, as it says:  ‘Are not my words like fire, says the Lord’ (Yirmiyahu 23:29).”  And R. Ashi said: “Any scholar who is not hard as iron is not a scholar, as it says: ‘As the hammer breaks up the rock’ (ibid.).” R. Abba said to R. Ashi: “You derive it from there.  We derive it from here, as it says: ‘A land whose stones are iron’ (Devarim 8:9).  Do not read avaneha barzel but rather boneha (builders, meaning scholars).”   Ravina said: “Even so, a person should teach himself to act in an easygoing manner, as it says ‘and remove anger from your heart’ (Kohelet 11: 10).”  (Ta’anit 4a)


            The first few statements seem to justify anger, whereas the final statement recommends against it.  What constitutes the justification and why does Ravina nonetheless prefer calm?  Most commentators read this gemara in an interpersonal context, in which the scholar reacts to the actions of others and thinks about how to positively influence them.  Meiri says that a scholar becomes enraged upon seeing the ugly deeds of mankind.  Perhaps the sage is more aware of what constitutes wrongdoing or he powerfully identifies with Torah values, therefore becoming more upset when people ignore those values.  Thus, Rava views the scholar’s anger as a result of Torah knowledge.


            According to Meiri, Ravina may appreciate Rava’s justification for a sage’s anger; yet Ravina also understands the pragmatic fallacy of this approach.  Rage and fury generate all kinds of negative fallout.  Most parishioners or students do not enjoy hearing angry words, and they will instantly turn themselves off to a message delivered with fury.  Furthermore, they will soon stop admiring a teacher who always loses his temper.  Successful teaching demands minimizing angry outbursts.  Moreover, anger often rebounds on the angry person.  Anger leads us to say the wrong remark or to embark on a foolish course of action that ultimately proves self-destructive. Since so much problematic behavior stems from anger, it behooves the sage to minimize his angry responses.


            In R. Arye Gunzberg’s Gevurat Ari, he also assumes that the Gemara addresses a teacher or rabbi pragmatically assessing the best way to impact others.   A contradiction bothers him.  R. Ashi favors anger, but Pesachim 66b instructs us that the sage who becomes angry loses his wisdom.  Moshe became angry and did not know a halakha; Elisha became angry and temporarily lost his prophetic ability.  R. Ginzberg answers that anger is a last resort, which is avoided whenever possible.  Anger can lead in many problematic directions, but it also can accomplish educational goals.  R. Ashi favors anger only when no alternative remains.   If a teacher can affect students with calm persuasion and inspiration, that is the best approach.  Even when the softer approach fails, we should not risk rage if we predict that it too will not be effective.  In other words, we only justify anger when it is the single effective way to positively influence another’s behavior.


            Both commentaries we have seen interpret this passage in terms of a scholar’s interaction with others.  After noting how the transgressions of others can inspire anger, the Gemara then discusses the best way to impact the broader environment.  Ravina counsels against anger, whereas R. Ashi allows it as a last resort.


            R. Kook (Midot ha-Ra’ayah, Ka’as) offers a very different approach to this Talmudic passage.  He interprets the Gemara as focusing on the internal dynamic of the scholar, rather than on the sage in a social context.  Individuals with great aspirations often become frustrated when they encounter the world’s limitations.  Their souls yearn for awesome heights, but harsh reality curtails their flight.  Such frustration can be caused by the actions of others, but it also is an inherent part of any significant personal quest.  Those who would like to achieve great things in scholarship, piety, or ethics will undoubtedly face days which make their dreams appear unattainable.  For R. Kook, the scholar’s anger stems from a frustrated quest, not from witnessing the shortcomings of others.


            This approach invariably changes our understanding of Ravina as well.  Ravina does not speak of effective preaching, but of personal character development.  A more mature sage comes to appreciate all the trials and tribulations along the way, seeing how they, too, contribute towards the yearned for goals.  Someone who comes to appreciate the need for difficulties and the painstakingly slow process of authentic achievement finds it easier to remain calm in the face of difficulty.  Ravina instructs the frustrated scholar to internalize this more sophisticated understanding.


            The passage from R. Kook mentions limitation as a source of frustration.  R. Kook may refer to limitations of ability or the confines of social context, but he may also refer to the limitations of Halakha.  A soul rich with desire to cling to God might find halakhic details unnecessarily confining and not conducive to spiritual ecstasy.  Why are there so many rules for prayer, instead of just letting the soul free to commune with its Maker?  According to this interpretation, Ravina calls for an understanding that details, limitations, and rules are not evil; in fact, they frequently aid our most important quests.  While some spiritual seekers fail to understand this point, great men of the spirit do. 


            Ravina’s chosen verse supports R. Kook’s interpretation. Had Ravina wanted to emphasize impacting others, he should have cited, “The words of the wise are heard softly” (Kohelet 9:17).  Instead, Ravina selected a supporting verse from a different chapter of Kohelet, a verse that does not clearly allude to a social context.   “And remove anger from your heart and put away evil from your flesh.”


            Personal frustration as a cause of anger appears in another Kookian passage in a much broader framework.  So far, we have discussed anger emerging from great aspirations and spiritual yearning.   In Orot Ha-kodesh (3:p. 244), R. Kook writes of people or groups who function in a constant state of anger.  He explains that this anger reflects a lack of insight and an inner emptiness.  In truth, the consistently angry are furious with themselves, but “the ego comes and forces it (the group) to place the venom of anger on others.”  Indeed, when we encounter those in a constant state of rage, we realize how the anger has little to do with the victims of their wrath. Such a realization may help us remain calm when we become the victims of such anger.


            Even those of us who do not exhibit constant fury could benefit from R. Kook’s insight.  When we become angry with our children or spouses, how often does the anger truly stem from a bad day at work or some other personal frustration?  Let us not take out our difficulties on those undeserving of our wrath.  Furthermore, the first passage from R. Kook provides a remedy, albeit a difficult one to internalize, for our situation.  If we truly realized that difficulties, limitations, and mistakes are both part of life and crucial elements in personal development, we would find it easier to not allow every complication to upset us.   


            According to every interpretation, the Gemara speaks about the fiery impetuousness of youth.  Rava discusses a tzurba me-rabbanan, a phrase indicating a young scholar.  Indeed, the young frequently exhibit a hotheaded quality when confronted by backsliding humanity or by a world of limitations.  It takes the maturity of adulthood to realize that anger will not positively influence others or lead to personal achievement.  Ravina instructs the ripe scholar to train himself to avoid anger.