Last month, we focused on the middah of silence. We emphasized that one of the most important times to be silent is when we’re feeling angry, because when we’re angry, we are likely to burst out and say things that we’ll later regret. Once the words come out of our mouths, it’s too late to take them back. Therefore, as soon as we start to feel angry, we should close our mouths and try not to speak until we feel calmer.
Furthermore, we noted that whenever we restrain ourselves from lashing out at someone who has hurt us, we are emulating Hashem Himself, who is the Ultimate Silent One. Hashem has infinite patience for us when we sin. We, too, should strive to have patience for other people who hurt us, and refrain from responding with angry words.
This month (Kislev), we will be focusing on some more tools to deal with anger.
Tone of Voice
While keeping silent is a one way to make sure you don’t say anything wrong, the Orchos Tzaddikim1 suggests another tool for making sure you don’t explode in anger:
Force yourself to speak in a calm tone of voice.
When we feel angry, we naturally start speaking in a violent, frustrated, sarcastic, or biting tone. We might scream, yell, or totally lose control. But if we force ourselves to speak calmly – even while the anger is still boiling inside – it will help us get our anger under control. Speaking in a low tone of voice prevents our anger from escalating, and helps calm down our emotions. How does this work?
The technique of forcing yourself to speak in a low tone of voice is actually part of a more general concept related to working on middos, described by the Mesilas Yesharim2 as “HaTenu’ah HaChitzonah Me’oreres HaPenimiyus”: Our external actions can impact our internal feelings. For example, if you are feeling upset, you can force yourself to smile. The small external act of putting a smile on your face will actually uplift your mood.
Try to imagine someone smiling while they’re screaming. Pretty hard to imagine, right? Our minds naturally try to match up our internal feelings with our external actions, so if we do an external action like smiling, it will inevitably have an effect on our feelings.
So too, even if you are burning with anger inside, if you force yourself to speak calmly, it will ultimately have a calming effect on your feelings. By not “giving in” to your desire to scream in an angry voice, your inner anger will slowly diminish over time.
Of course, it would be nice if we would not only speak calmly when someone insults us – but even feel calm inside, too – but the reality is that that’s a very high level for us to reach. It’s very difficult for most people to feel calm and peaceful when they have just been insulted. So at least, as a first step, we can try to force ourselves to speak in a calm tone of voice, and hopefully our anger will soon subside.
The Power of Visualization
When we’re reading this email now, in a calm state of mind, it seems pretty easy to imagine speaking calmly when someone upsets us. But when it happens in reality – when someone really gets on our nerves – it might not be so easy to put it into practice. When the time comes that someone actually insults us, we know it will be much harder to hold back our tongue at that time. So how can we maximize our chances of success?
Rav Yerucham Levovitz3 explains that in order to maximize our chances of success, we can use our power of visualization, which we learn from Rabbi Akiva.
The Gemara4 writes that Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans, and was forced to die Al Kiddush Hashem. As the Romans were tearing his flesh with iron combs, Rabbi Akiva was saying the Shema and was Mekabeil Ol Malchus Shamayim on himself. His students asked, “Rebbe, how are you managing to do this?!! How are you able to say Shema even amidst so much pain?!!”
Rabbi Akiva answered: “My whole life, I was troubled by the passuk in Shema, ‘U’Vechol Nafshecha – a person must even give up his life to serve Hashem.’ I was always yearning: ‘When will I be able to fulfill this mitzvah?’ Now I finally have the opportunity to fulfill it!”
Rav Yerucham Levovitz points out that we see from here the power of visualization. Throughout his whole life, Rabbi Akiva practiced imagining himself dying Al Kiddush Hashem. By picturing thisover and over in his mind, Rabbi Akiva had the strength to fulfill the mitzvah when the opportunity finally came.
Rav Yerucham emphasizes that we, too, should take advantage of the calm, peaceful times in our lives, and use those times to visualize ourselves dealing successfully with whatever nisyonos (challenges and struggles) we are likely to face in the future.
Applying this principle to the topic at hand, if we want to work on our anger, we can imagine ourselves in anger-provoking situations and then visualize ourselves responding in a calm tone of voice.
Indeed, Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes5 that our angry reactions are really just a natural outcome of the visualization we have ingrained in our minds abouthow we expect ourselves to act in certain situations. We have certain expectations stuck in our heads, such as: “If someone does something against my will, my face will become red with anger, and I’ll bang on the table, and scream insults at them!” When we later encounter an situation that makes us feel angry, we then follow through by reacting in the way we have always imagined that we would react.
So if we want to change the way we react when people make us angry, we need to prepare in advance, by visualizing ourselves responding differently.
Sources:  Orchos Tzaddikim Sha’ar HaShtikah;  Mesilas Yesharim Chapter 7; also see Sifsei Chaim Middos Vol. I. pg. 222;  Daas Torah: Devarim Vol. II. pg 218 and Shemos pg. 199; also see Sifsei Chaim Bereishis pg. 186;  Brachos 61b;  Alei Shur Vol. II. pg. 214; also see Battle Plans, pg. 254;
Once a day, imagine yourself encountering a situation where someone makes you upset. Picture yourself staying calm and responding in a calm tone of voice.
Try to imagine the scene in as much vivid detail as possible.
- Imagine that a waiter accidentally spills coffee on your shirt. The waiter is apologizing profusely and trying to clean up the spill, as you reassure him by calmly saying, “It’s alright, anyone can make a mistake.”
- Imagine you are dancing at a wedding and someone accidentally steps on your toe. Your toe is in searing pain but you give a small smile and say, “It’s ok.”
- Imagine that you ask one of your family members to take out the garbage, and you walk into the kitchen 4 hours later and the garbage is still there. The person who was supposed to take out the garbage is sitting at the table reading a book. You walk over calmly and say, “Sorry to disturb you. Just reminding you that I would really appreciate if you can take out the garbage as soon as you get a chance.”
- Imagine that you go into a restaurant and order a bagel with cream cheese. It takes 10 minutes for them to prepare your simple order. Finally, as you are nearly collapsing in starvation, they call your name and hand you a bagel with tuna. You hate tuna. But you calmly speak to the waiter and say, “Excuse me, I’m sorry, but it looks like there was a mistake with my order.”
- Imagine that you are asked to speak at a family gathering, and you spend many hours thinking about what to say and how to say it. You prepare a meaningful dvar Torah that will hopefully be inspiring to everyone there. When you’re done speaking, your cousin walks over and says, “You spoke for way too long and I didn’t even get what your point was.” You are so pained by his insensitive comment and you want to yell at him about how insensitive that was, but instead, you calmly respond, “Thank you for letting me know. I’m sorry you didn’t get much out of it.”
- Imagine that you offer to do a favor for your sister by driving her to her doctor’s appointment so that she won’t have to take the bus. You arrive outside her house exactly on time, but she is not there. You wait for 15 minutes and finally she appears. You are seething in anger about how much time you just wasted – and you want to launch into a speech about how YOU are doing HER a favor so how can she possibly be so inconsiderate as to waste your time – but instead you hold yourself back and calmly say, “I see it took a while for you to get out of the house. Is everything alright?”
- About which person in Megillas Esther does it say, “his anger burned within him”? (Esther 1:12)
- What was he angry about?
- According to Tehillim 30:6, how long does Hashem’s anger last?
- The Gemara (Eiruvin 65b) writes that a person’s true character can be recognized in a few ways, including how he acts when he is angry. What is one of the other ways mentioned in this Gemara for how to recognize a person’s true character?
- Fill in the Blank: The Gemara (Brachos 7a) teaches that when Hashem prays, He says: “May it be My Will that My ____ should overcome My anger”?
- Pirkei Avos 5:11 says that there are 4 categories of people in terms of how easily they get angry and how easily they can be appeased. What are the 4 categories?
- Which category does Hashem fit into? (See the Rosh Hashanah Machzor after U’Nesaneh Tokef)
Questions to Ponder
- The Gemara (Pesachim 103b) writes that when a person is angry, his life is not a real life. What does this mean?
- The Gemara (Shabbos 105b) compares getting angry to serving idols. What do you think is the common denominator between anger and idol worship?
- The Yalkut Reuveini (Beshalach) says that anger always comes from a place of gaivah (arrogance). What do you think this means? How is anger related to arrogance?
- For most middos, the Rambam recommends a balanced approach, but for anger, the Rambam says a person must stay very, very far away from anger, and go to the opposite extreme. Why do you think the Rambam said this about anger instead of about other bad middos like arrogance?