Vayigash – Anger Management Solution

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 The Ramban opens his letter to his son saying, “Constantly act by talking all your words softly, to every person, at all times. In this way you will be saved from anger, which is a bad attribute that causes people to sin. As Chaza”l (Nedarim 22a) say, ‘All who are angry, all sorts of Gehenom control him as it says (Koheles11:10) ‘remove anger from your heart, and take off bad from your flesh,’ and bad only refers here to Gehenom as it says (Mishley 16:4) ‘and also the wicked for the day of bad.'” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The beginning of Orchos Tzadikim, in The Gate of Anger, states: “Anger is an evil trait. Just as scurvy is a disease of the body, so anger is a disease of the soul… Our sages have said further (Nedarim 22b): ‘If one gets angry, even the Shechina is of no account to him…And he also forgets his learning and grows in stupidity… and it is known that his sins are more than his merits…’ and his punishment is very great…” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

If this is how terrible the character flaw of anger is, then why does the Rabbeinu Bachye in his introduction to this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash say that “it is well known that Yosef should not have been the one showing anger over his stolen goblet, but rather Yehuda and his brothers, who were in fact innocent of the crime since the whole thing was a setup, were the ones that should have been angry. Nevertheless, Yehuda the great wise one, powerful physically and spiritually, was able to overcome his proclivity and did not become angry. Even though it was fitting for them to be angry, Yehuda saw that it wasn’t the time or place to get angry,  but rather to speak gently in order to calm down the wrath of the master, Yosef.” How can Rabbeinu Bachye say that the brothers were the ones that really should have been mad? No one deserves to be angry, because anger is such a bad character trait as we saw above! So what does Rabbeinu Bachye mean when he says the brothers were deserving of feeling angry?

 It must be that anger is a very different negative character trait than most character flaws, in that it comes spontaneously onto a person, whereas other characters flaws are developed. This is why there is no prohibition of becoming angry in the Torah but there are prohibitions against other emotions, such as jealousy, “Don’t covet” (Shemos 20:14), hatred, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra19:17), and haughtiness. As the Orchos Tzadikim says in the beginning of The Gate of Pride, “Pride is the coin the Great, Blessed King has invalidated and which He has extorted us about in His Torah, as it is written: ‘Take heed lest you forget Hashem your G-D’ (Devarim8:11) for the proud man forgets his Creator…” The feelings of pride, hatred, and jealousy develop inside a person and get worse over time, so the Torah prohibits one to develop those negative attributes. But anger is a spontaneous emotion, which is why it makes sense that in their circumstances the Rabbeinu Bachye says Yehuda and his brothers were the ones who should have been experiencing it, not Yosef. This is also why the Torah didn’t place a prohibition against becoming angry. However, since if you let it fester, it is so unhealthy, Hashem created a system to manage anger which the Ramban says is to always speak softly. That will diffuse the feeling of anger that might be triggered when someone is being irritating, which might naturally spark anger.

However, talking softly isn’t just a system to calm oneself down; it can also be used as a weapon or mechanism against other people who are angry at you, to calm them down and diffuse the situation. Rabbeinu Bachye, as he always does in his introduction to the Torah portion quotes a pasuk from Mishley. “A gentle reply turns away wrath, but a galling word incites anger” (15:1). “Shlomo Hamelech (the author of Mishley) is warning a person in this pasuk to raise one’s soul and habituate one’s natural tendency and speech in replying gently to others, because replying gently quiets and puts to rest anger towards an angry person. Antagonizing words which are the opposite of replying gently cause a buildup of anger and wrath.” Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to describe the power of speech in general; how it is a great power that can influence good and bad, life and death, as we see speech being related to learning Torah but also to speaking lashon hara/slander. Then he says, “And because speech is a major component for saving one’s soul and body, or G-D forbid causing its destruction, King Shlomo comes and teaches knowledge to the nation that they should strengthen themselves in this attribute of replying softly because it calms wrath, even the wrath of the king as he says, ‘the king’s wrath is like angels of death’ (Mishley 16:14). Now Yehuda ben Yaakov excelled in this attribute for he spoke to Yosef softly and in this way calmed his wrath that he was showing them, for he was angry over the incident of the goblet [found in Binyamin’s sack.]” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

 We see from Rabbeinu Bachye that speaking softly doesn’t just calm oneself down but can calm others down, even an angry leader. The reason why soft speech even has an influence on others is as the Ramban writes later in his letter to his son, “Therefore I will explain to you how to act with the trait of humility, to walk in it constantly. All your words should be said gently… and if someone calls out for you don’t answer him loudly, rather gently, like one who stands before his master.” Speaking gently has a calming effect which makes others perceive that you are humbling yourself before them, and therefore they feel obliged to act in kind and treat you with some level of respect. That is why the anger resides on both sides, you are feeling ashamed or humbled by your actions of speaking gently and he feels respected.