It’s Time To Get Angry

Posted on September 18, 2018

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!…You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do” 1 These words from Howard Beale in the movie Network ring true for me at the moment. In the days following Hurricane Harvey there were a number of pictures that made the rounds on the internet and across social media. These images included a man carrying a woman and her baby through the water, a first responder holding two children in his arms while wading through the flood and a wheelchair bound woman transported through the waters. They were the pictures of people doing whatever they could to help others. They were the good news stories in the midst of despair and devastation. They were the shining examples of people rising to their highest potential. The text above one of these images read “America is not what happened in Charlottesville. America is what is happening in Houston.” In another it read: “This is America” alongside a picture of a white man carrying an Asian mother and her baby, while below it said “Not this” alongside pictures of white supremacist marchers carrying swastikas.2 Both during and in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we saw citizens of this great nation rise up, answering the call to action. We took pride in the way that people were able to come together to help one another, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In the midst of these tragic events, we saw the heroes among us and not only how great our country can be, but how great our country is. Yes, this is America. America is what happened in Houston and Florida. But America is also what happened in Charlottesville. That is America too. And acts of humanity and heroism, no matter how great, cannot blot out the hate that we have seen unleashed. I understand that we want to celebrate the good news stories. All too often following the news cycle can feel like a one-way ticket to despair and depression. We see, hear and read about all that is wrong in our country and in our world, about all of the suffering and all of the hate. I myself have gone through periods where I have avoided the news altogether, in a state of blissful denial, trying to hide myself from what is really happening. Ignorance can really feel like bliss sometimes. 1 Taken from the movie Network 2 For examples visit: or 2 In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her famous book, On Death and Dying, and in it she suggested that there are five stages of grief experienced by terminally ill patients, or by family that have lost a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her five stages are helpful for those who are grieving and mourning over a death. They are problematic for me, as I am not ready to grieve and mourn for the death of the America I love. I’m not looking to get to a place of acceptance of what happened in Charlottesville; I want us to bring about a change. But for that to happen we need to move out of the first stage of denial. When the news is too bad to bear, when we don’t want to face the reality of a situation, when we’re dealing with loss; denial is an important place for us be. As psychologist Jennifer Kunst writes: “the mind has developed an elegant kind of security system, where defenses like denial can be used to keep us from going crazy and to help us cope with the many demands of internal and external reality.” The problem is that we can become comfortable in a life of denial, it can feel better not to know. But as she continues: “A lifestyle of “not-knowing” requires that we subscribe to the old adage that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. But the evidence of life shows that this just isn’t true. As a way of life, hear no evil – see no evil – speak no evil is a recipe for disaster.” 3 Denial is fine and understandable, even necessary, as a first stage, but it cannot be the final stage. One of Yom Kippur’s central messages is that today denial is not an option. We stand before God called upon to acknowledge all that we have done and all that we have not done. Our liturgy helps us to admit those things we would rather ignore and to remember those deeds we would prefer to forget. How can we be in a state of denial when standing before the Judge of Judges? This day calls upon each one of us to face reality with open eyes, hearts and minds. Today we are called to attention to see our lives and the world as it really is. Today is the day to leave denial behind. And after denial, comes anger. And I believe that right now is the time for us to get angry. I’m as mad as hell. I am mad as hell that white supremacists feel empowered to march through the streets of America. I am mad as hell that slogans of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism have been heard again. And I am mad as hell that in today’s America we once again need to fight against hate, prejudice and bigotry to pursue civil rights and equality for all. We should be angry, but not angry just shouting out into the night’s sky; our anger can be the fuel and the fire we need to do something about this situation. 3 3 In South Africa in the 1890s, an attorney was travelling on a train and took his seat in one of the first class cabins with the ticket he had paid for. The problem was that this attorney was a young man from India and this was South Africa with a complete separation between whites and blacks. The man was reported to the ticket inspector who challenged whether he could really be an attorney, queried how he was able to purchase the ticket, and insisted that he give up his seat and move to the back of the train. He warned him that if he did not comply he would be thrown off the train at the next station. As you might have guessed, when the train pulled in to the station at Pietermaritzburg, the passenger was forcibly removed. This young man had been a loyal servant of the British Empire, his family were the equivalent of the Prime Ministers of the State of Porbander in India, and by his nature he was actually considered to be conservative. But this incident changed him. The man was Mahatma Gandhi, and this is considered to have been the seminal moment in his life. Gandhi got angry. But it wasn’t a paralyzing anger, it wasn’t blinding rage. It was anger that lit a fire in him, that moved him to action. He knew what to do with that emotion. He later reflected: “I knew it was sheer injustice and an insult, but I thought it better to pocket it.”4 He did not simply restrain his anger; in his words he ‘reserved’ it, harnessing it to steel himself to fight bigger battles. And for the next 25 years, he was a thorn in the side of the South African Government until his return to India. The man who changed the British Empire through his non-violent protest began his struggle from a place of anger harnessed and directed to be constructive instead of destructive. Today is our day of judgment and in the Talmud we read that a person’s character is judged by three things: By what he consumes, by what she gives her money to and by his anger.5 I believe that we are judged by the things that make us angry and by the things that do not. When I get cross about being stuck in traffic on route 20, when I get angry about waiting in line at Starbucks and when I lose my patience with my children, I am judged by my wife. Bur also by God. But mostly by my wife. You know those complaint lines that you can call. I am the person who picks up the phone and waits on hold for 20 minutes to voice my disappointment. And then I complain about the 20 minutes! I don’t want to think about how much time I have wasted – that’s the type of anger I am not proud of. And I will be judged that those were the things on which I wasted my anger. Because I will also be judged by the times I don’t get angry. By the injustice and hatred I don’t complain about, by the times I am calm in the face of oppression and suffering. 4 The quote and story is referenced in the article: The Role of Anger in the Consciousness Development of Peace Activists, from the International Journal of Psychophysiology, available here: 5 Talmud Eruvin 65b 4 When God sees injustice in the world, a world filled with violence and terror, a world that is on the wrong path, God gets angry. There are numerous examples of God getting angry in the Torah. We read about God’s nostrils flaring and God growing red with rage. But the anger is then harnessed for action, for progress, for advancement to help us and our world to move forward. And today, on this day of Yom Kippur, we read our Haftarah from the book of Isaiah, and once again we find an angry God. As we heard this morning, Isaiah cries out on behalf of God against the people for their meaningless fast. The language used by the Prophet is simultaneously angry and despairing; “For their sinful greed I was angry; I struck them and turned away in My wrath … Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! … Is this the fast I desire?”6 But anger is the means, not the end. After criticizing the wrong path, Isaiah reveals the right one and calls upon the people to return to it. And in our tradition, it’s not just God who gets angry; anger courses through all of the Prophets. As a group the Prophets were discontent with and angry at what they saw around them; they were angry with the people, with the state of the world and with society. When Rabbi Beryl Cohon wrote his book about them he called it: “God’s Angry Men,”7 a truly fitting title. Just like Gandhi, the characteristic of the Prophetic anger is that it was never directionless or uncontrolled; it always came from a place of hope, envisioning a world that could be different, a people that could be better. Their anger emanated from a world in which the people and society were failing to live up to their potential. Their anger was always constructive, intended as a rallying cry for action. Today our anger is morally necessary, but it must be constructive. We will be judged by whether we get angry and act or whether we stay silent and live in denial. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” In his autobiography Dr. King recalled an incident when he was 14 years old. ” I traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley (to) participate in an oratorical contest. We were on a bus returning to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. We stood up in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”8 And Dr. King 6 Isaiah 57:17, 58:3-5. 7 The full title is: God’s Angry Men: A Student’s Introduction To The Hebrew Prophets 8 5 knew what to do with that anger. It was a wake-up call forcing him to pay attention to what was wrong in his country. It was the anger that gave him the awareness and the drive to fix the problem. Our anger must be like the anger of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Prophets; it is a fuel that should drive us to action which leads us to change and culminates in our country reborn and recommitted to equality, freedom and justice. In 2012 Margaret Heffernan published her book: “Willful Blindness – Why we Ignore the Obvious at our Peril”. Studying businesses across the globe she had asked questions like: “are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?” And around the world 85% of people answered yes – that’s 85% of people in a business who see a problem, but are afraid to say anything about it. In her language that’s a lot of willful blindness. Thankfully though she also found in the remaining 15% those people who refuse to ignore the problem and who challenge the institution to do better. As remedies to the blindness she found the people we would call whistleblowers. As she concedes when we hear the term whistleblower the mythology around it suggests that they’re usually crazy. But her studies actually found something very different. The people she studied were usually very loyal and quite often conservative people who were hugely dedicated to the institution that they served. They were so committed to their places of work that they were the ones who got angry about the institution not living up to its potential and falling short.9 Many of us will remember the photographs from Abu Ghraib that shocked the world; horrific images of American soldiers abusing the prisoners that they were supposed to be guarding. We saw members of our military doing things that were in opposition to the ideals of the flag on their uniforms. Joe Darby was known as a very obedient, rule following soldier. But when he found those photographs, he handed them in because as he said: “You know, I’m not the kind of guy to rat people out, but some things just cross the line. Ignorance is bliss, they say, but you can’t put up with things like this.” We can be America’s whistleblowers, the people who care so deeply about this country that we will not permit her core values to be subverted by an extremist minority. We should be angry today because we are committed to the American ideals, because we care about our country and because we know things can be better. If the Jewish year 5777 was the year of denial, maybe we can use Yom Kippur as our day for anger. Reserving it, channeling it and transforming it into the fuel for the action and work that will be needed in this forthcoming year. Today we are called to open our eyes, our hearts and our hands to see the world as it is, to see the world as it could be and do something about it. Today we should be as mad as hell and say 9 6 we’re not gonna take this anymore and tomorrow we will go out into the world and do something about it. Gmar Chatimah Tova