Tuesday, October 11, 2011

[Shefa] Sukkot: Thoughts on Anger


Sukkot and Anger
Rabbi Neil A. Tow
The 2004 film Ushpizin gave us the character Moshe Bellanga, an Israeli man who had lived a life of crime, turns himself around, and becomes a devoted religious person,  a person who still struggles with anger.  When his old friends, convicts on the lam, cut up and cook a meal with his prize 'diamond of an' etrog that he purchases for the Sukkot holiday, he runs away praying to God to save him from his anger, to help him not be angry.
The Talmud sees someone who becomes consumed by anger as someone who is committing the sin of idol worship.  What is the idol that we're worshipping when we're angry?  We might say that we're worshipping ourselves, that only our feeling and point of view matter, and we become less than human ourselves—giving in to a powerful, animal-like aggressive emotion.  In this state of mind, we close out God and become detached from creation, and so it is as though we are an idol – something we can see and touch, but something that is lifeless.
There are times to be angry, that the Rabbis teach us that a measure of our character is what issues make us angry.(How are we known:  Bekaso-by what angers us, bekiso-by our "pocket" i.e. how we spend our money, bekoso-by our "cup" i.e. our 'temperance'.)  As a teacher of mine taught, be angry that there is injustice, be angry that there is hunger.
And then we come to the fall Sukkot holiday, past the anxieties and doubts of standing before God in judgment, past the stern image of God as the Divine Accountant with Books on God's desk, inscribing names, and what fate awaits us.  We seem to be now past the time of anger, a time when there is reconciliation with God, a new peace and hope within ourselves and our relationships, a fresh new start.
And yet here, at this time, the Rabbis were still concerned about anger, still mindful that on the fun and informal holiday of sukkot, when we sit outside and schmooze under the sky and stars in the Sukkah, that anger might creep in to our lives.
The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) teaches that we are meant to spend our time in the Sukkah during the holiday, eating, sleeping, and leisure time.  In our leisure time, Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi, in his commentary, emphasizes that we should speak of meaningful matters only in the sukkah and we should not show any anger in the Sukkah!
And then the Law Code takes up the issue of what to do when it rains on the Sukkah while we're out there.  Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his commentary teaches, "When one leaves the Sukkah due to the rain, do not show anger and then leave, leave with humility."  Don't show anger?  Don't leave in a huff?  It's raining!  We're wet and cold!  Isserles is teaching us that how we leave is as important as how we enter—that we should remember we're not in the sukkah as a punishment or inconvenience, that we're doing something special, and we should honor the moment of having to leave with as much feeling as the joy of entering the Sukkah.
Why might anger be an issue on Sukkot?
In the days of the Temple, the High Priest came out safely on Yom Kippur and the people perceived that God had cleared us of all our sins.  Today, we leave Yom Kippur after hours of prayer and reflection, after thinking deeply about our direction in life and after considering how to change and what we want to do differently in the coming year.  Throughout the High Holidays we received assurances that God was with us for the long haul, that God would forgive us and strengthen us, and that we had the ability to seek peace with those whom we had wronged.
And then we build the Sukkah – the structure that is temporary, that blows in the wind, that does not totally protect us from the elements, that requires us to move our meals into the mosquito and bug filled outdoors, from the world of safety to the world of fragility, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from a predictable environment to an unpredictable environment.  And it is possible that we just might begin to feel frustrated or angry when we realize that we, and our fellow human beings, are as fragile as the sukkah, that we've just begun the process of personal growth and change and we have not yet achieved our goals.
We see then that anger could seep into the Sukkah from the cracks between the broken places within ourselves that we are now in the process of healing.
When we gather now and into the near future, in the Sukkah, in our homes, at school, at work, let us all pledge to give each other the space and time to shed the habits and misdeeds of the past year to make room for the new self that is emerging.
If we can do that, then we will have peace in our Sukkahs and we will have successfully applied a lesson from the world of the bugs that live outside and buzz around the Sukkah to the process of repentance!
Neil Tow
Blog: www.rabbitowswindow.blogspot.com
Glen Rock Jewish Center: www.grjc.org

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