Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

This week the highest volcano on Indonesia’s most densely populated island erupted, sending smoldering debris and thick mud in all directions. The sudden eruption spewed thick columns of ash more than 40,000 feet into the air, causing searing gas and lava to flow down its slopes. Several villages were blanketed with falling ash and people were advised to stay over three miles from the crater’s mouth. At least 13 people died and 57 more were hospitalized, including 16 in critical condition with burn injuries.

It was a painful reminder of the deadly devastation a volcano can produce without warning.

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Early in my educational career, I had the pleasure of being the school social worker in Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch in Monsey. During those years, I conducted a weekly social skills group with the fifth-grade students about anger management.

One of the strategies we discussed was the need to always be aware of one’s inner temper. We may at times feel edgy, grumpy, or restless without recognizing that such feelings make us more prone to angry flare-ups. We would use an “anger volcano” to measure where our inner “lava level” was in order to determine how prone we might be to an eruption.

The volcano model is very apropos. When a person loses his temper, he is in danger of spewing harmful invective that can cause irrevocable damage. The words screamed in a fit of rage can “overflow” quite rapidly destroying whatever is in its path, including self-esteem and quality of hard-built relationships, particularly of those he loves most. Of course, one can apologize and try to patch things up, but once uttered, words can’t be retrieved.

During those years I had the privilege, along with Dr. Yitzy Schechter, to co-author two pamphlets for parents. One was titled “Anger: A guide for parents;” the other was titled “Communicating with our children.”

One of the points that I stressed in my groups and in the pamphlet was that anger is a normal and natural emotion. We can’t always control when we get angry and how intense our anger will be. We can also learn a lot about our values and what’s important to us by analyzing what triggers us and makes us angry.

On the other hand, we are always responsible for how we respond and react when we are angry. Even if one is furious or livid and even if his extreme anger might be justified, there is never a valid excuse to act in a hurtful manner or say hurtful comments. It is our responsibility to be in control of our anger, and not allow our anger to consume us.

A colleague suggested that such an approach might not be in sync with the Torah outlook. He noted that there are a few statements in the Gemara that equate anger with idolatry. Therefore, perhaps we must teach our students that they have to strive to never feel anger.

I was skeptical and presented his point to a few Torah leaders. They all replied with the same basic theme: We cannot teach children that they must eliminate all anger. Such is the level of rare individuals, such as the great Hillel who could not be provoked to anger (Shabbos 31a). But regarding most of us, we need to convey that although anger is natural, we are always responsible and accountable for our words and actions. When the Gemara states that one who becomes angry is like he served idolatry, it is referring to one who lost control because of his anger and acted inappropriately as a result.

Rabbi Ezriel Erlanger, mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir in Brooklyn, noted that Pirkei Avos is the barometer and guide for a Jew’s conduct and outlook. Since we do not find in Pirkei Avos a demand that one never become angry, that indicates that we do not aspire for such a lofty level, and certainly shouldn’t demand it of our children.

My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates that his father-in-law, Rabbi Levin, was an orphan who lived in the home of the Chofetz Chaim for a number of years. Rabbi Levin would recount that, contrary to public opinion, the Chofetz Chaim had a natural temper. The greatness of the Chofetz Chaim was that he maintained complete control over his temper.

When the Chofetz Chaim felt the slightest tinge of anger welling up within him, he would excuse himself and walk away from what was angering him and would talk to himself: “Yisroel Meir, why are you becoming angry? Yisroel Meir, calm yourself.”

Only when he felt calm enough did he return to the provoking conversation or situation. At times, he would excuse himself more than once, as long as the feeling persisted.

It is also related that the Chofetz Chaim would enter the bais medrash late at night after everyone had left. One night, a student hid in the women’s section to watch the Chofetz Chaim. He watched clandestinely as the Chofetz Chaim opened the aron kodesh and pleaded, “Master of the World, Yisroel Meir (referring to himself) is a kohain. Please help me that I not lose my temper.”

It is worth adding that the Ba’al HaTanya writes that one who has a natural temper has an inner fire. If he learns how to channel that energy and feistiness, he can accomplish great things and serve Hashem and assist others with passion and vibrancy.

We can’t always squelch the anger within ourselves. But with effort and attention we can ensure that we don’t become overwhelmed by anger, but always remain in the emotional driver’s seat.

It takes effort, but it can be done. Just imagine how much good could be generated if we were able to channel the force of exploding lava into productive energy.

(If anyone feels he/she could benefit from the pamphlet about anger, please email me and I’ll be happy to send a PDF.)

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Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is a popular speaker and author as well as a rebbe in Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, NJ. He has recently begun seeing clients in private practice as part of the Rockland CBT group. For appointments and speaking engagements, contact 914-295-0115 or stamtorah@gmail.com. Archives of his writings can be found at www.stamtorah.info.