A few weeks ago, I played basketball for the first time in 15 years. Thirteen women walked through the doors of the state-of-the-art YULA gym for a women’s-only evening of basketball. The spacious gym reminded me of my high school days. I smiled, and as we stepped onto the court and almost touched the past, memories came flooding back to me—of bleachers filled with friends and family, scoreboards lit up above us, and statisticians keeping track of every move. Within moments, I was 16 all over again.
I was very quickly propelled back to reality when I started gasping for air after running up and down the court twice (maybe once, but who’s counting?). I was rusty and jarringly disappointed by my failing basketball skills. My mind still thought I was a teen, but my body let me know (loud and clear!) that this was no longer the case. It was a pretty humbling experience. But despite it all, I had fun, and even though I didn’t play like my teenaged self, I sure felt like my teenaged self again.
A few days after the game, I noticed a bruise that spanned my knee all the way up a part of my leg. The bruise was black, and extremely swollen. Even though it looked intense, during the game, I didn’t even realize I had been injured. It was only after the game that my body decided to let me know I’d been hurt.
And then it hit me:
A bruise is a physical indication that something underneath the surface is tender and bleeding. Something similar happens when we are angry. Our outward emotion is an expression of deeper pain. Our minds may not be aware of our hurt, but our anger lets us know we are aching. However, anger is a masking emotion—it is rarely the base feeling we are experiencing and usually indicates that something deeper is going on.
Chayi Hanfling explains anger eloquently.
Anger is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with underlying emotions that threaten our internal stability. Oftentimes in our relationships we feel sad, hurt, anxious, or fearful, which make us feel vulnerable, a feeling many translate as weakness or powerlessness. So our primary emotion of hurt or fear triggers a secondary emotion of anger as a way to make ourselves feel more powerful and less vulnerable. Anger breeds an illusory sense of strength which can feel intoxicating, especially when the alternative can feel so terrifying.
If one is exceedingly bruised, the doctor might suggest an x-ray to check for a broken bone. So too, we must examine our anger and determine what type of hurt it is masking. When we address the hurt, it allows us to grow from the anger.
The Vilna Gaon considers anger to be one of the two main traits that prevent a person from serving the Almighty. Some may deny unpleasant feelings because they are afraid they reflect poorly on them; however, this is an erroneous thought process. Denying anger can cause pain in the body and other psychosomatic issues.
Additionally, Hashem created us in a way that causes every person to experience a full gamut of emotion that when observed can help us change. Anger educates, and it’s our job to listen so it can stop. We must confront our anger because only acknowledged anger can be controlled. Just like we relate to a bruise in a neutral fashion, applying to it no moral value, we must examine our anger in a non-judgmental way so we can get to the root of it and conquer it.
Another reason we must not be afraid to uncover the root of our anger is because it informs us of our true priorities and values. Rabbi Pliskin relays an example of a mother who was constantly reminding her children not to fight when one sibling broke another’s toy. She claimed that the love of a sibling should be more important than the cherished toys. Then one day, a neighbor borrowed their immersion blender and returned it broken. Their mother muttered, “I guess that’s what you get for trying to do something nice…” Her eldest daughter observed this and said, “Mother, shouldn’t your love for your fellow Jew trump your anger over the blender?”
How can we practically guide our anger to teach us about our inner wounds and values, rather than keep us trapped in resentment?
Get Real with Who You Are
Let’s look again at the basketball example to illuminate how to control anger instead of letting it control you.
As I waltzed onto the court that night, I assumed I had the stamina of a 17-year-old and was sorely disappointed by a reality check. In the same vein, when our expectations of ourselves and life are unrealistic, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. It is only through humility that we can lower our expectations of ourselves and others.
Gaavah, conceit, causes anger. The Rambam feels that most traits need to be expressed in measure, i.e. through the middle ground; however, he states that this trait should be eradicated completely. Humbling ourselves to prevent the anger from building and lowering expectations to prevent frustration can help do this.
Keep an Anger Journal
Rabbi Abraham Twersky suggests keeping an anger log. He maintains that humans don’t have control over the feeling of anger, but have total control over our responses and resentments. Because we don’t have free will over the feeling of anger, we must not feel guilty. An anger journal can resemble the following:
- Here’s what happened today…
- This is how I responded…
At a later time, we can look over the entry and reflect, Did I handle that in the best way possible? Then, the moment of anger becomes a lesson for the next time. Keeping track of what happens before and after anger strikes is one of the best ways to allow anger to teach you what is hurting. By observing and acknowledging the anger, and making the necessary changes in our lives and reactions, anger can finally start to dissipate because it has done its job.
Brachah Is on the Way
Rabbi Nachman states that whenever Hashem wants to give us yeshua, salvation, he first tests us in anger. If we pass the test, we receive the yeshua. Hashem has a gift ready to share with us, but first He will send us a test in the form of anger. When one has the right to anger and stops themselves instead, brachah, blessing, is on the way. Conquering our anger unlocks access to that brachah. The Vilna Gaon supports this notion when he writes, “For every second that man controls his tongue, he merits some of the ‘hidden light,’ something which no angel can imagine.”
Anger constricts, both physically and spiritually, while serenity and humility expand us. Releasing anger expands us to receive Hashem’s brachah. Whenever I feel locked in my anger (or any negative feeling) I try to imagine a group of helium balloons tied together with a weight. If we can simply release the weight, the balloon can fly without boundaries. Similarly, by relinquishing our anger, we become a greater and a more whole vessel, worthy of receiving Hashem’s blessings. Lower yourself and your expectations to receive more bounty.
Ultimately, if I’m enraged, it doesn’t hurt the person as much as it hurts me. We are put on Earth to learn, and we must learn from all places, including our anger. Pirkei Avot says, “Who is wise? one who learns from everyone.” Everyone includes our emotions, too.
Anger can become a powerful tool to help teach us what is hurting inside and what our values are. We must not ignore our inner teacher, but rather examine it without judgment it in order to grow. When we observe our anger and humble ourselves, we become a greater version of ourselves, ready to receive the flow of Hashem’s bounty. With a little bit of practice we can soften anger, and get a little bit better at the game of life.
 Eruvin 65b
 Beur HaGra on Mishlei 16:31
 Anger, Pliskin, Zelig, pg. 15
 Anger, Pliskin, Zelig, pg. 79
 Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup by Rigler, Sara Yocheved, pgs. 419-420
 Iggeret HaGra