They [each] said three things: Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own; and be not easily provoked to anger; and repent one day before your death. And [he also said:] warm yourself before the fire of the wise, but beware of being singed by their glowing coals, for their bite is the bite of a fox, and their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like coals of fire (Avot 2:10).
After analyzing over the past few weeks Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s challenge to his students to find the straight path and their responses, we are ready to explore the message that each student communicated. The mishna introduces the sages’ various answers with the fact that “[t]hey [each] said three things.” This bit of trivia turns out to be a sleight of hand, as we are then told that Rabbi Eliezer says at least four distinct ideas. Commentaries vary on how to address this difficulty, including one fascinating suggestion by Meiri that the fourth statement was not actually part of the original three, but was an idea which Rabbi Eliezer communicated elsewhere that was appended here by editors of the mishna.
Another possibility, which will be illustrative for our present purposes, is to group different statements together, molding what seem like two concepts into one longer idea. By utilizing this methodological move, the commentators provide us with added insight that would be absent if each statement were looked at independently. For our presentation, we will be focusing on the middle statement, “And be not easily provoked to anger.” Through our analysis and the insights of the commentaries, we will come away with seven therapeutic strategies for controlling anger.
Strategy 1: Validate
There is a philosophical debate as to whether it is possible to completely excise anger from our emotional repertoire (see Rosenwein, 2020). This debate plays out within the Jewish ethical literature as well, with Rambam, at least in one place (Hilchot Deiot 2:3), indicating that one should never feel anger. Yet others disagree, and they draw textual support from our mishna. Rabbi Eliezer doesn’t say “don’t get angry,” but “be not easily provoked to anger.” Anger, Abarbanel writes, is natural, and therefore is impossible to completely eliminate from our reactions. Rabbeinu Yonah adds that not only is it natural, but we are drawn toward anger.
While they don’t state it explicitly, perhaps embedded in their comments is a helpful therapeutic idea. The fact that anger is natural and even alluring allows us to validate and accept our feelings of anger, albeit without excusing them. Many people condemn themselves for feeling or expressing anger (“I’m such a bad person”), which often backfires and does not facilitate change. In the words of psychologist Albert Ellis (1997):
[A]ccept yourself while not accepting your behavior. Fully acknowledge its stupidity: that it most likely brings you more harm than good… If you feel determined to accept you, your humanity, in spite of your anger, you will have little trouble in fully acknowledging it as bad or self-sabotaging. But if you insist on condemning yourself, your totality, for your anger, then you will tend to deny, repress, and excuse your rage. And you will find yourself dealing poorly with it. Look at it as bad but correctable!
Strategy 2: Pause
Rabbi Eliezer’s formulation of “be not easily provoked to anger” encourages us not to react quickly to anger-provoking situations. This slowing-down process requires inserting a space in between the stimulus and the response of anger. This can be done by taking a step back, removing ourselves from the situation, counting to ten, taking deep breaths, doing a relaxation exercise, or any other combination of ideas that allows us to hit the pause button on our physiological reactions (for more strategies, see Tafrate and Kassinove, 2009, chapter 8).
Strategy 3: Think
This gap in time also affords us the time to think. Rabbeinu Yonah believes that there are times when it is appropriate to get angry. Yet that anger must be felt and expressed only after careful deliberation. He writes, “Weigh in the scales of your intellect if this thing is fit to get angry about. And if you find any argument to remove your anger, negate it.” The decision to get angry has to be just that – a decision, not a reaction. It should be done with great patience and forethought, and only if there is a great need. Any cognitive justification not to get angry must lead us to the decision not to get angry.
This utilization of intellect to investigate the appropriateness of an angry reaction, and help counteract it, is a fundamental attribute of cognitive behavioral therapy. It entails being aware of our cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs that lead to anger, and then challenging those ideas based on logic or reality. If the thoughts don’t hold up to careful scrutiny, then we need to work hard to change them and replace them with more helpful thinking patterns (for a step-by-step guide, see Knaus, 2021).
Strategy 4: Positive Perceptions
Related to the idea of investigating how our thinking patterns impact our anger is analyzing our standard perceptions of the people we interact with. Do we have any implicit or explicit biases against others? Do we assume that others have hostile intentions towards us? Do we look for flaws and accentuate faults? If we answered yes to any of these questions, we will likely have many more opportunities to justify and express our anger.
However, if we tend to assume neutral or positive motivations of others, and try to provide the benefit of the doubt, we won’t be confronted with as many instances that could provoke anger. Our positive perceptions provide us an opportunity to be oblivious to all the potentially anger-provoking stimuli which is not afforded the person with more aversive perceptions.
Rabbi Yosef Yavetz discovers this message here by assuming that Rabbi Eliezer’s advice in this mishna reflects the answer he proposed to Rabban Yochanan’s question of what is the good path, namely, having a “good eye” and not having an “evil eye.” Someone with an evil eye ruminates about the faults of others, and with very little provocation finds flaws and is filled with anger. In contrast, someone with a good eye will positively perceive the actions of others and will consequently not even be presented with the prospect of experiencing anger.
Strategy 5: Honor Friends
Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda creatively culls another strategy from combining the two juxtaposed statements: “Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own” and “Be not easily provoked to anger.” He argues that Rabbi Eliezer is providing for us an anger management strategy. If we don’t want to be easily angered, we should make sure that the honor of our friend is as beloved to us as our own honor. Anger is a byproduct of not treating others with respect. If we properly respected everyone, we would never get angry at them. Just like we wouldn’t yell at ourselves, we shouldn’t yell at others.
Combining the concept of honor with that of slowing down, questioning our perceptions, and thinking through the scenario, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes poignantly:
Let us consider, however, how many times something we said or did was misunderstood. While our intentions were good, our words or actions were taken as provocative and aroused an angry response. We then try to explain ourselves and clarify what we meant. We should give others the benefit of the doubt when we are provoked, and consider that we may be misunderstanding them. If we would give them the opportunity to explain themselves, we would be less likely to become angry. Thus, says R’ Eliezer, if you treat others the way you would wish to be treated, you may indeed avoid becoming angry.
Strategy 6: Think of Death
While Rabbi de Uceda combined the first two clauses to produce an anger management technique, Abarbanel does the same for the second and third clauses. A strategy for “Be not easily provoked to anger” is to “Repent one day before your death.” “There is no more befitting medicine for removing anger,” Abarbanel writes, “than remembering the day of death.” While perhaps a morbid idea for some, as is evident from this mishna and other statements from Chazal (see Avot 3:1), this technique was viewed as a somber yet potent reminder that infuses fear of sin. This technique, also found in Stoicism, is a popular suggestion in some contemporary literature (see Holiday, 2016).
Minimally, even if one does not find a constant reminder about death beneficial, there is another important message embedded within this insight. Chances are, whatever detail we may find ourselves becoming angry about in the moment likely does not have great import when framed from a broader life perspective. Is this something that will be important tomorrow? In a week? Month? Year? Five years? Ten years? In the likely chance that this is something that will recede into insignificance, it is probably not worth getting angry about it now.
Strategy 7: Broader Goals
Rabbi Moshe Almosnino frames Rabbi Eliezer’s advice within the context of how he was described by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: as a superb student with a phenomenal memory. Rabbi Eliezer’s statements should be understood as advice for how to thrive in learning. If we want to succeed, we need to honor friends, because so much of learning hinges on positive social engagement. We also need to control our anger, because anger can be detrimental to learning, both in terms of the social ramifications and in the ability to concentrate and remember facts. Repentance and continual refinement of our spiritual selves is also fundamental. Finally, becoming close to teachers, but also having the proper reverence and boundaries with them, is important.
In terms of anger management strategies, I believe we can cull the following idea from Rabbi Almosnino’s reading. When we have broader goals and values, like success in learning, we need to be aware of the damage that our anger has on those goals. We should think functionally – is this anger helping us towards these higher goals? If not, then we should do our best to avoid it. By framing our anger in terms of broader life goals and values and knowing what is at stake if we do get angry, we can help ourselves avoid the damaging effects.
In sum, a careful analysis of this mishna through the creative methodologies of the commentaries provides us seven useful anger management strategies: 1) accept our humanity while condemning our anger, 2) pause before reacting, 3) analyze our thoughts, 4) work on positive perceptions, 5) honor our friends, 6) think about the broader perspective, and 7) work towards higher goals. Because anger is so common, yet can be so destructive, it is incumbent on each of us to utilize as many strategies as necessary to “be not easily provoked to anger.”