Outrage (Yom Kippur 5781)

Posted on September 27, 2020

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

When our children were toddlers, they each took a different approach to expressing their anger.  One of them, when upset, would fly into a raging temper.  He would go from calm to kicking-and-screaming in an instant:  stomping, hitting, throwing things.  It was a little scary to parent him when he was like that, but the upshot was that when the anger had finished coursing through him, he was done.  Either he got his way or he didn’t, but it was out of him, and we could all go on with our day.

Our other son, when upset, took a different approach.  He would look at you for a minute, square in the eye.  Then, he would sl-o-o-owly kneel down to the ground, and then—so unhurriedly—would lower himself to his belly, pause for a moment, and only then would he begin to pound his arms and kick his legs and moan.  He could keep on going with that for an incredibly long time—letting us know that we were his oppressors.

Both kinds of expressions of anger served important purposes for our kids, but ones that were really quite different.  The first kind of anger expression was immediate and eruptive.  It burst out of him with violence that vented all of his rage into the world at once.  As parents, we were not going to give in to that kind of outburst, so it didn’t necessarily change anything in the particular situation we were in in that moment.  But, as his parents, we taught ourselves pretty quickly to try to avoid those things that would make him angry in the first place.  So, in the end, he did effect change.

The anger expression from our other son was much less violent, but it was extremely effective in changing the situation at hand.  That toddler’s deliberate, slow-moving anger was a marathon, not a sprint.  It was not loud, and nothing got broken, but I’ll tell you—when it came to our attempts at sleep training him, he outlasted us by far.  He won.  He trained us to help look for a compromise offer early in his anger that could help everyone save face, because otherwise, our whole afternoon would be down the drain.

My children’s expressions of anger, and how they have used their fury to effect change in us as their parents, has been incredibly instructive to me.  Obviously, I hope that they will continue over time to learn more and more how to neither attack the people they love nor use their anger to get things that aren’t actually good for them.  But, I have learned much from their anger because I am somebody who does not like to get angry and really does not like to express it when I do.  I mean, I do get angry, and I do express it when I am, but for most of my life so far, I have thought of expressing anger as primarily corrosive—not as a force for either venting the hot steam that has built up inside, as my one son did, nor for forcefully and deliberately impacting the forces around me, as the other did.  My children are teaching me, and so is the current state of the world, because, right now I am outraged, and I’m realizing that outraged is the right way to be.

There is a huge amount to be angry about right now.  I think that most of us have our own lists.  When I sat down to write this as a first draft, my fury came pouring out of me onto my paper, like my tantruming son pouring our steam—but, for this Yom Kippur, I’ll try to take my second son’s approach, and name more deliberately, a more careful sampling of the things I am furious about, from my point of view as a rabbi and as a Jew—

I am outraged that as a country we are failing to understand that every person is made b’tzelem Elohim,[1] uniquely in the image of God, and that, as the Talmud says, to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world.[2] 

I am outraged that we are failing to heed the admonition that God gave to Cain when God said, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”[3]

I am outraged that we are not heeding the words of our great sage, the physician Maimonides, when he said, “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it,” and that we are not respecting the expertise of learned scholars who have devoted their careers to research of medicine and ethics alike.[4]

I am outraged that we continue to fail to act on our understanding that, as one midrash says, “God formed the first human out of dust from all over the world:  yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil, so that no one can declare to any race or color of people that they do not belong here or this soil is not their home.”[5] 

I am outraged that we are failing to live up to our obligations as Shomrei Adamah,[6] guardians and tenders of our earth, and that we are failing to plant seeds for this world and its climate that our children will be able to harvest.[7]

I am outraged that we are utterly failing as a nation to welcome the stranger into our midst, though we know that all of us were once strangers here and that, as Jews, we are commanded to treat the stranger like one of our own, along with the widow, the orphan, and the Levite:  all those who do not have the resources or access to power in our society to provide for themselves. That we are in fact treating those who come to us for shelter as midrash imagines the people of Sodom did:  punishing those who ask for bread and those who feed them,[8] maiming those who lie in our beds.[9]

I am outraged that we are treating the bounty we have received as something we created ourselves, rather than acknowledging the gifts we have been given by those who came before us and that, in the end, all of this—the heavens and the earth, the world and all that fills it[10]—all has only been lent to us, and that it is on us to express our gratitude for what we have been given and to make sure that it is used for justice.

I am outraged that we are failing to honor the understanding of the very first chapter of the Torah that says that male and female were created as one, and that we seem unable to honor what the rabbis of the Talmud did two millennia ago, when they wrote about there being a range of genders—and, we can add, sexualities.[11]

I am outraged that we do not seem to understand what Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak was taught in the Talmud, that “one who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood,”[12] and what the sages were saying when they said that “A person’s tongue is more powerful than one’s sword. A sword can kill somebody who is nearby; while a tongue can cause the death of someone who is far away.”[13]

I am outraged that we are not doing enough to walk the path that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel laid out for us when he told us that, “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings” and that, “in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.”[14]

 

So, what, as a Jew, do I do with my outrage?

Our tradition is clear that we are called on to act when injustice is threatened or done.  We are not supposed to run away from our responsibilities, like the prophet Jonah did at first.  We are not supposed to think that someone else will take care of it, like Queen Esther did before she accepted her sacred role.  We are not supposed to succumb to despair, because that would be to deny our tikvah, our hope.  Above all, we are not supposed to remain indifferent, for as Elie Wiesel taught us, indifference is the opposite of love; it is the opposite of faith; it is the opposite of life itself, because in “indifference one dies before one actually dies.”[15]

Instead, this day of Yom Kippur teaches us that we must acknowledge our culpability.  Not that we should be cut down under the weight of our transgressions but, rather, that we should name those things that we have done wrongly as individuals and as a society so that we can begin the vital and continual work of teshuvah:  returning our steps, action by action, to the right path, and to do everything in our power to repair, restore, reconcile, and recompense for the wrongs we have done.

Yom Kippur teaches us to bring our transgressions here to our sacred space together—whether we sit physically in the same room or are across the country or the world—so that we can bear our guilt together with others and to share in responsibility for changing our fate and changing ourselves.

Our tradition says that it is our job to speak truth to power and to overthrow corruption, using whatever tools are within our grasp.  Abraham used his words and the voice of logic to argue with God, when God seemed bent toward injustice.  Moses used reason, magic, and punishment to speak truth to Pharaoh when he was intent on causing harm.  Esther used the power of artfulness and persuasion.  Tamar used trickery to expose a grievous wrong.  Deborah used her position of authority.  The prophet Nathan used storytelling.  Ezra used books.  David used music.  The rabbis used interpretation.  The conversos used hidden markers of faith.  Those in the Warsaw ghetto used uprising.  Heschel used his feet to march as a form of prayer. 

Through vote and petition, postcards and Facebook posts, donating and marching, yard signs and pulpits, climbing steps and breaking ceilings, teaching our children, modeling our behavior, using our words, our hands, and our feet—we “turn our moral outrage into moral courage” and we act.

Rabbi Shai Held has taught us, “The greatest heresy in Judaism is to believe that the world is as the world must be.”[16] 

Instead, ashamnu:  it is our sin if we do not work to change the world.

 

And, what about when we’ve done all that we can do, at least for this day?  The “artist cannot be continually wielding [her] brush.”[17]  The soil cannot keep bearing fruit without time to rest, and neither can we.  In the story of Creation, even God needs a break.  So, we take our sabbaths and our sabbatical years.  We pause, not only so that we can renew, but also so that we can study and learn, step back, and take joy in this remarkable and glorious Creation.  For as the Talmud says, even God takes time to play with the largest of pets of this world, the Leviathan.[18]

And we remember, when we go to work again, that “it is not ours to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”[19]

So, our anger and outrage are ours to use.  When we vent steam when we need to and tantrum when we must, and then we look our oppressors square in the eye, we look at ourselves in the mirror, and we use our anger to make things right.

[1] Genesis 1:27.

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

[3] Genesis 4:10.

[4] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:15.

[5] Yalkut Shimoni, 1:13.

[6] Genesis 2:16.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a.

[8] Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 25:8.

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b.

[10] Psalms 89:12.

[11] For references to the (at least) six different categories of gender in classical Jewish texts, see, for instance, https://www.keshetonline.org/resources/gender-diversity-in-jewish-sacred-texts/.

[12] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b.

[13] Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b.

[14] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (ed. by Susannah Heschel; Farrar Straus & Giroux), p. 255.

[15] “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And, the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference one dies before one actually dies,” Elie Wiesel, US News & World Report (27 October 1986).

[16] As quoted by Rabbi Jacob Fine, https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/126637?lang=bi.

[17] Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1994 edition), p. 59.

[18] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 3b.

[19] Pirkei Avot 2:16.